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  • Writer's pictureAndrew McIlroy

Restlessness, experiment and change: A failure of artistic vision or something more

There has always been an irresistible curiosity surrounding the lives of artists. Wandering into any good bookstore it is hard to miss the tabletops and shelves filled with weighty volumes enumerating in exhaustive detail the biographies of various artists.

Yet despite such riches, I have always been fascinated by the simple, humanising story of Leonardo da Vinci who "took much delight … in all other animals … and this he showed when often passing by the places where birds were sold, for, taking them with his own hand out of their cages, and having paid to those who sold them the price that was asked, he let them fly away into the air, restoring to them their lost liberty". Giorgio Vasari, 'The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects' (1568)

We like to know an artist’s quirks, penchants and bents when they are not painting or sculpting. The details that surround the creative instincts of an artist from what Van Gogh read (Charles Dickens, Émile Zola and Alphonse Daudet) to which schools rejected the young French sculptor Auguste Rodin (he applied unsuccessfully three times to the École des Beaux-Arts) are captivating in themselves - facts we often hope might illuminate the mystery of the artistic process.

And yet the act of translating idea to form, of taking what the mind imagines and fusing it into reality, is often not easily explained, not even by the artists themselves.

Self Portrait by Giorgio Vasari

So where are we to find the answers for unlocking an artists’ shifting oeuvre, for explaining inconsistencies and contradictions, their experimentation and change?

The question of what influences a particular artist's work - whether intrinsic or extrinsic - is an intriguing one.

For some, who have struggled to find a concept, a way of approaching that concept and an individual voice in which to express it, change comes hard.

Others see change as a challenge, and make it the very subject of their art.

At one extreme for example was Mark Rothko, content to have spent his life to a significant extent (he did paint figuratively for a period) exploring colour in unvarying rectangular forms; at the other, is the seemingly erratic Picasso, who changed styles and mediums again and again.

But what does change mean for an artist anyway?

For one, it can simply mean a shift in brushstrokes from one abstract canvas to another; for the next it may mean a profound revision of style or theme, born of frustration or wilful desire.

Mark Rothko. Photo: National Gallery of Art

Should sudden change in artistic style always be regarded as a bad thing? Does a change in an artist's style render the earlier work less valid, to be discarded, or vice versa?

Legacy and ego certainly play a part in answering whether a particular styled work should be retained, as does an acute awareness of one’s mortality.

But in recent years there has also developed a mistrust of institutional integrity, and a degree of unhappiness as to what many private galleries can ultimately offer in today’s competitive art market.

Against this has arisen a desire by artists to solely construct and project their own narrative to accompany their works, whether agreeable to a particular audience or not - to release to the market only those works that fulfil and serve the artist's vision at a particular time.

In essence, the desire here is simply to make art; where art is not made to be property, opened up to ignorance that often depends on a value or interpretation that is beyond the control or intentions of the artist.

The key to understanding the motivating force for such changes in artistic style is more often found in the factors that surround the artist at the time of the art’s making - providing much needed context for shifts in the artist’s work but importantly also a fuller and indeed richer view of the artist themselves.

Pablo Picasso and friends in Paul Cuttoli’s garden in Mougins.

Left to right: Ady, Marie and Paul Cuttoli, Man Ray, Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar, photographed by Man Ray (1937)

Such an approach therefore can go some way in re-evaluating the notion that Pablo Picasso’s career was divided into distinct periods such as blue, pink and cubist for example. During the stresses of the Great War Picasso appeared to abandon cubism, only to return to it repeatedly throughout his long life.

When World War I broke out, French and British publications denounced cubist art as a product of Germany. They made a case that cubism’s dismantling of objects was analogous to Germany’s fragmenting of nations, and precipitating a world war.

The French establishment felt that cubism was foreign to their culture. The German dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler was the primary dealer of Picasso’s cubist works, that led many French people to associate cubism with the despised Germans.

In addition, the French were suspicious of Spain, Picasso’s birthplace, which stayed neutral but whose aristocracy and military appeared to favour the German cause.

All of this put Picasso’s career in a precarious position.

Picasso did not directly address the war as a subject in his art, but the conflict did influence him significantly, causing a radical change to his style .

After seven years concentrating on geometrical cubist forms (following his earlier Rose and Blue periods) Picasso made a shift and started painting naturalistically, almost classically - allowing people to think he had abandoned cubism.

He also found a new French dealer. But Picasso did not renounce cubism. Throughout the conflict and into the 1920s he shifted back and forth, alternately creating cubist and natural paintings, as illustrated in the contrasting works of 'Pierrot' (1918) and 'Harlequin Musician' (1924).

Picasso sometimes combined elements of both forms in one work of art, as in 'Studies' (1920).

Pablo Picasso, 'Pierrot' (1918)

Pablo Picasso, 'Harlequin Musician' (1924)

Pablo Picasso, 'Studies' (1920) Photo: MoMA

For Picasso the two approaches were not necessarily antithetical: “If the subjects I have wanted to express have suggested different ways of expression, I have never hesitated to adopt them.”

Towards the end of the war, Picasso experimented further by designing sets and costumes for the ballet Parade by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russe, presented in Paris with a story by Jean Cocteau, choreography by Léonide Massine, and with music by Erik Satie.

Picasso’s set caricatured modern life in a cubist manner but the curtain he designed was classical. He constructed large paper-mache figures for the production, encapsulating marked changes to his normal way of working.

Throughout the 1920's Picasso continued to explore more naturalistic representation, turning out classical figure drawings that outraged many of his progressive colleagues - a further shift from the radical cubist approach he had been developing since 1907.

Picasso however did not give up cubism. Instead, he shuffled back and forth between two different styles for over a decade, breaking objects apart and making them whole again, exploring their various forms in connection with changes to his personal life, with his misgivings about cubism, and with the political meanings ascribed to cubism during the war. (Steve Cohen, 'Picasso in Paris')

No doubt a certain restlessness in response to the tumultuous world around him invaded Picasso's artistic process, bringing even greater experimentation, change and notably within his lifetime the giddying success of his artistic vision.

While change may be a necessary response to the circumstances in which we may find ourselves, its import ultimately upon the life and work of the artist can truly never be understated.


Parade by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russe, presented in Paris (1917)

Main photo: Pablo Picasso

Andrew McIlroy is an artist and writer, living and working in Melbourne, Australia


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