The curved, sick, and boney fingers are everywhere. The Frugal Meal (1904), one of Picasso’s early paper engravings, is immediately striking. A couple sit by one another, elbows resting on the square tablecloth, facing an empty plate and a quarter piece of tough stale bread that neither dare to look at. In the monochromatic piece, everything becomes a matter of contrast. Tension is built through a subtle kaleidoscope of impressions, the last of which is that of the couple drifting apart from one another. As such the dramatic use of black and white takes a multi-layered meaning and comes to play with our very own contrasting impressions. Whilst an initial gaze shows love and unity, a longer gaze quickly reveals disunion, mimicking what French author Andre Gide called the “de-crystallization of love”. The emphasis on movement, the waves of creases in the tablecloth, the filled and empty glasses, the shaded male lover and exaggeratedly bright woman all seems to suggest a rat race to the end of love. The depiction of the couple’s starving fingers comes to magnify the enduring impression of misery and growing resentment, copied onto multiple places, like a leitmotiv shape of the engraving.
“You little prick, we didn’t bring you the RA to a play Angry Birds” shouts a man to his son before snapping the phone out of his hands. The “sandal and socks” German tourist cracks a dirty joke. I am forced out of the piece. Going to the museum sometimes takes us deep into the experience of solitude, especially when confronted with such magnanimous genius as that of Picasso and such frivolity as that of a couple violently making out by the “Painter as six years old” drawing. The Spaniard, in the space of a rectangle, sometimes a square or a napkin (see later in the exhibition) creates a dense expression of humanity. The “Blue period” is emotionally pervasive, the shades of a single colour resonate like death and love in two corners of a same piece. Yet we are but walking entities, with limited experience and when we face such diverse and explosive demonstration of what human experience can be, we are forced into our little shell of lonely self. Maybe that’s the reason why we think so much about the trivial stuff when wandering around the fancy corridors of the RA, Have I fed the cat, when next will I be able to down ten pints an hour with the boys, is youth long gone already? I know that soon enough my failing liver will become less trivial than Picasso’s “Crystal” and “Rose period”. But right now, regardless whether trivial or high, my mind is trying its best to take me away from the real stuff.
The real stuff is the jarring confrontation of the self with the intimate universe of another. Almost never in life do we get to contemplate for as long as we would like, the intricacies, the fantasies, the real intimacy of another: the alter ego human. Picasso is a master at its craft because he expresses so articulately the shapeless complexity of desire, fear and all that constitutes us. We are thus forced into a careful and meticulous inspection of the self.
The piece Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe is no better example, inspired by Manet’s historic oil painting which propelled the Impressionist movement. The 27th February 1960 green-themed version is strangely captivating. In Manet’s original piece, the art of detailed observation is cultivated in the indecisive looks of the subjects, the shy nudity and the subtle variations of green. From dark to light we imagine a secret path to sensuality and pleasure, an esoteric recipe of the senses. If Manet is revolutionary in how he exposes nudity, and stands for his style despite the stifling conformity of his time, Picasso is ground-breaking in the way he reinvents shapes and creates an instinctive emotional language with the observers.
In the Confucian tradition, only a master, a sage, can establish new rituals once he has fully internalised and acquired the ways of the ancients. Only then can he come to truly invent new forms for the expression of essential principles. There is a sense of that in Dejeuner sur l’herbe and the succession of paintings which chronologically precedes it in the exhibition. The master has come to the height of his art through a progressive internalisation of the ways of the past and through intimate experimentation with colours and ideas, but here he establishes a rupture. He negates any sort of accepted conventions but creates something truly meaningful; an enlightened form of human expression. The sense of childishness evokes something universal. The crude and raw nudity brings sensuality to its most sober and fundamental level.
Wandering around further we stumble across yet another form of solitude. That which is necessary in the process of artistic creation, fostering its most essential component: self-cultivation. Picasso was a regular of Gertrude Stein’s Salon and a prominent figure in mundane continental life. Less known, however, are his long periods of retreat in the Spanish countryside and the solitary life he so often led. This exhibition reveals so brilliantly the long inner path that the acquiring of such mastership must have required. It is an exhibition on the perpetual coming of age and constant transformation of a true artist. The initial daunting solitude felt at facing such incredible genius morphs into a model for approaching life; one of discipline, rigor, and belief.