If you want to know more about art then visit a gallery. The more you see the more you know. These days subjectivity is key. What you the viewer thinks is always correct. That piece of work inspires no feelings…that’s fine too. (I’ll let you into a little secret, I mainly go to galleries for the people spotting). And while standing in front of Edouard Manet’s Olympia in the Musée d’Orsay with 172 other tourists means you can put a stamp in your cultural passport, there is a lot to be said for sitting at home with a cup of tea and a book of your favourite artist’s images.
Although your own interpretation is currently king, there is also a vast body of written work around art that is worth exploring. This is why over the next five blogs I will be exploring five books that have added to my understanding of art, photography, colour and language.
If creating art is a way of representing the world in a different way, then Picasso is arguably the master of this, (I won’t be delving into the controversies of his life and being, Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette does this brilliantly) then his friend Gertrude Stein is equally as good as re-presenting the world through her use of language.
In Picasso, Stein takes us on a journey through the early life and works of the artist which she explains in a playful staccato voice. And she is highly qualified to do this, not only as Picasso’s friends but as the patron and collector of works by Matisse, Gauguin, Cézanne and Renoirs amongst others. Stein was also running a salon with her partner Alice B Toklas in Paris during what was arguably one of the most vibrant periods in 20th century fine arts.
Not weighed down by reverence or time Stein doesn’t do dusty facts but playfully talks us through Picasso’s journeys from Spain to Paris and back again, all of which have a massive influence on his work. She explains the genesis of his work, that he was a born draftsperson and that his father was a professor of painting in Spain. Facts are interspersed with anecdotes that give Picasso personality and bring the artist to life.
It is a pleasure to read first-hand stories about Picasso and his development as an artist. In Paris, a camouflage truck drove past them at the beginning of the First World War only for Picasso to exclaim “it is we who made it, that is cubism”. I found this retelling of the time Stein and Picasso saw camouflage pattern for the first time, very moving. The artist preoccupied with art and not aware of the absolute horrors that were to come. Another revelation was that Picasso often used often used Ripolin an ordinary brand of house paint in his pictures as he found these to be “purer” than the art colours for sale at the time. This for an artist whose colour was so important Stein noted that “his periods were named after the colour that he was using”.
Stein’s book takes us up to 1937 and again relates the modern world with the art world when she compares Cubism with the experience of flying over fields in America. And this is where the reader is left, with the vibrancy of Picasso’s still life works and the promise of the 20th Century, just months before the Spanish Civil War and Guernica.