Home / Education / ARChives / Foundational Discussions


From Fred Ross

Published before 2005

The artists of the 19th century exhibited a deep, abiding respect for humanity and human feelings. A respect for our minds, our spirits and our reason, and a love of beauty, grace and true excellence and accomplishment. Bouguereau, Lord Leighton, Waterhouse, Burne-Jones and the other giants of the 19th C. tried to capture those things that are good and decent in our species. Their accomplishments are the quintessential high point of hundreds of years of human study and development in the art of painting. They are arguably the greatest painters that history has ever produced. Bouguereau especially fits this description. How fitting and sadly obvious that he should be characterized as the chief villain by those who would destroy rather than build -- who celebrate chaos rather than order and beauty.

Recently, a contributor to an on-line art forum I subscribe to made the following comments about Picasso,

I love the way Picasso did that woman all shards and angles. I don't recall the name of the work. But, he painted the woman in her turmoil how she tore herself apart within, and how he saw what her turmoil did to her. He painted the way he saw her, as fragmented as he saw her. She was a beauty on the outside. Yet, he painted the ugly face of her turmoil, and in so doing painted his turmoil as well.

Picasso worked in a turbulent time. I think it's why some of his works appeared to be reflections in a broken mirror. Shards, impressions all cut up and each with a voice about his subjects and of Spain. His work shows a deeply sensitive artist and was a pivotal point for the Russian avant garde school that said it was okay to feel in paint, to get all the chaos out in paint ... I didn't love him until I studied him ...

- Laurie

Laurie and Goodart subscribers,

I really need to address these ebullient expressions of praise for Picasso a bit more precisely.

Laurie, this is not to fault you at all, but to analyze the description you have made which reflects the gospel that is taught about him in most art history courses. His name and "achievements" have become so "untouchable" within the sacrosanct walls of modernist cathedrals, that to do any other than you have stated here would be like criticizing the cross or the bible in the College of Cardinals.

Let's look at this one idea at a time.

You said that, "He painted the woman in her turmoil how she tore herself apart within, and how he saw what her turmoil did to her".

In fact, all that he painted was a messy characterization of a woman in which the forms and shapes don't align or create any cohesive form. The drawing is virtually non-existent, and the disintegration of all artistic elements are self-consciously laid out for the express purpose of rejecting prior artistic standards.

There is no beauty in her face, or for that matter, ugliness. There isn't even a face ... but elements thrown together with just enough evidence to let the viewer know that it was meant to suggest a face.

Everything about the finished product is utterly awful and would be beneath the capabilities of a talented 12 year old.

Now, what if you are a theorist who needs to justify this hodge-podge of sloppy color and form? What can you creatively think of to place value and meaning, where none exists ... especially, if you are being paid to do just that?

It's simple: you need but approach the work as you would a Rorschach inkblot test, where anyone can use creative ability to make up a story, suggested by little, if any, information. If you want this man's work to be valued highly, you must create a tale of great importance, with meaning, which, when discussed or analyzed in intellectual circles, will be considered profound and meaningful.

The idea of a lady being ugly on the inside is a concept from literature, psychology, and in fact all of human history. Ugliness, mean-spiritedness, and turmoil are major concepts that tint all of human experience. So you simply say that the messiness represents that, and look how brilliant he is to have captured it.

But in truth he has done nothing of the kind. The writers who said that was what it means were the ones who did it, and not the artist. Inner turmoil and ugliness on the inside is far more difficult to capture, and takes intense, subtle handling of story telling, composition, drawing, and realistic rendering to successfully convey so that it can be recognized without any words. Waterhouse's Lady of Shalott and Bouguereau's Divideuse both capture beautiful women loaded with inner turmoil, and Cabanel's Cleopatra testing poisons on slaves portrays intense inner ugliness within a beautiful face and figure infinitely better than these broken blotchy messes on canvas by Picasso.

But when the modernist professors say that's what it means, then implicit in their words is that if you don't see it too you're stupid and tasteless. Also to not see it becomes associated with not seeing how wonderful that subject matter would be. And it is after all truly wonderful subject matter. Only one problem; Picasso didn't paint it.

You say, "his work shows a deeply sensitive artist," but I don't conclude any sensitivity whatsoever. What is there is the sensitivity of a bull in a china shop, who stomps around breaking all the beautiful porcelain, and then with an army of critics lined up with their nostrils flaring dares anyone to criticize the dump he just left in the your living room. "Either you love my turds or you are against freedom of expression." If you don't want it in your museum, you're the enemy of freedom of speech. Faced with such intimidation surely many would rather line up in support. But there is truly nothing there. It's a trick of words and intimidation. An illusion of social pressure and fearful conformity.

His school "said it was okay to feel in paint, to get all the chaos out in paint ... I didn't love him until I studied him."

Of course you didn't love him until you studied him. What you learned to love was all the explanations about worthwhile concepts and subjects. And with a training right out of Pavlov, you were taught to salivate when you were shown things that caused associations to those worthwhile ideas.

But Laurie, WHERE'S the BEEF? You're salivating at a symbol much the way people react to their country's flag. The flag comes to be seen as beautiful because it represents family, home and hearth, friends, loyalty, and the things we love. You've been taught to react to symbols instead of responding with the freedom of independent thought to works of art that are not supposed to be flag-like-symbols of great artistic ideas, but the great works of art themselves, which communicate, through a readily discernable visual language, some aspect of the human condition.

You had to be taught to love Picasso, because nobody would love him otherwise. But people don't need to be taught to love Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Bouguereau, or for that matter Chopin, Beethoven, Bach, or Tom Sawyer, The Grapes of Wrath, Alice in Wonderland, or The Christmas Carol.