Why Does Picasso Draw Like That?
A long time ago, in Paris, there was a young artist called Pablo Picasso. He was so unknown and nameless that no one bought paintings from him. Without money to buy food, the poor artist was always hungry. One day a rich man came to the young artist and asked him to draw a portrait, and promised to pay ten thousand francs for it. A week later, the young artist finished his work. It was a great painting, but the rich man wanted to go back on what he promised. The stingy rich man did not want to pay as much as he had agreed.
“That is MY portrait! No one else will buy it. Why should I pay so much for it?” said the rich man.
“But a promise is a promise,” the young artist argued.
“One thousand, sell it or not, I will not pay more.”
The rich man was so sure that the poor artist would sell him the portrait. The young artist felt very angry and humiliated. “I will not sell it. But I promise you, you will pay for what you have done today.”
A year passed by, the rich man had totally forgotten about the young artist and the portrait. One day, some of his friends came by and said, “It is so strange. We went to an exhibition by a famous artist, and there was a portrait that looked just like you. You may want to buy it, but it is really expensive!”
That famous artist was Pablo Picasso.
Pablo was born in Spain, but moved to Paris to become an artist when he was 19 years old. He changed his last name from Ruiz to his mother’s last name – Picasso, which he thought was more artistic. And because it had a double ‘s’ just like other great artists he admired: Matisse and Rousseau.
During his time in Paris, something else happened to young Picasso. His best friend Casagemas died. Poor Picasso, far away from home, was living in a very bad condition, and lost his best friend. He felt so sad and lonely. And he started to draw everything in blue. For Picasso, blue was the colour of sorrow. He wanted everyone to feel his sadness. He drew the poor, the homeless, the desperate and prisoners. Picasso became a painter of misery. Strangely, people started to think he was special, because he drew so differently, and the colour blue seems to relieve the unhappiness. They called this the ‘Blue period’.
However, Picasso’s friends just wanted him to be happy. They took him to the circus, and WOW, Picasso was fascinated by the clowns, dancers and everything. He began to draw in pink, yellow and orange, just like the colours of the circus. His paintings look cheerful again, and people named this the ‘Rose period’. The circus performers remain as a subject in Picasso’s paintings throughout the rest of his long career. But the ‘Rose period’ did not last for a long time, because Picasso and his friend Braque found a new style of painting called ‘Cubism’. His paintings started to look even stranger and he became even more famous. And that is another story.
Edited by Umberto Eco, translation by Alastair McEwen, 2007
Available from Rizzoli Publishing
“Beauty is but skin deep, ugly lies the bone;
Beauty dies and fades away, but ugly holds its own.”
– Old proverb
It is an indisputable truth that ugliness is considered to be the opposite of the beautiful. But what is ugly when applied to the arts? Does a work of art necessarily have to convey a sense of beauty and admiration? What are the historical and cultural criteria for any artwork to be labelled obscene, repulsive and ugly? Is it the famous La Tour Eiffel that once irritated the citizens of Paris by its grandiose monstrousness? Perhaps it is the graffiti painted on the wall? Or Marilyn Manson’s striking appearance?
On Ugliness, which is a sequel to previous best seller History of Beauty, is a chronicle of the ‘hideous’ side of art history. Edited by one of the most acclaimed and influential semioticians and literary critics of our time, Umberto Eco’s book is an aesthetic survey of the grotesque, odious, monstrous, frightening and awkward.
Accompanied by the author, the reader embarks on an unforgettable journey through nightmares and horrors, death and torments, monsters and miracles, sorcery and devil-worship. On Ugliness is a book where feelings of disgust and disruption can be found adjacent to gusts of compassion and curiosity. Disfigurement is portrayed as merely a continuation and a distortion of beauty itself that takes a more sophisticated and diverse shape. Eco emphasizes the juxtaposition of the notions: that attractiveness can sometimes take grotesque shapes, thus becoming simultaneously seductive and repellent, and wholly abominable.
In this historical survey of the Ugly, Eco explores the phenomenon of the repulsive and its transformation throughout the centuries in the visual arts, philosophy and literature. The models for beauty and ugliness have been established in accordance to religious beliefs, scientific discoveries and aesthetic canons. The Italian philosopher embraces a vast period of time – from ancient Greece to the present, concentrating his research on the alteration of the concept of ugliness in Western culture. The narrative is buttressed with quotes and excerpts from the greatest minds of the past and their contemporaries. Plato, Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, Honoré de Balzac, Stephen King, William Gibson are all included, as well as an astonishing collection of images – from ancient Greek effigies through to kitsch and pop culture.
On Ugliness makes a brief foray into contemporary art by presenting one of the most provocative and repelling images of modern art to the reader. Hanging kids (mixed media, 2004) by Italian contemporary artist Maurizio Cattelan, is an installation featuring three young boys hanging from an oak tree. This is the exception rather than the rule as, apart from that, the book makes very little reference to contemporary art. As an editor, Eco reserves critical judgements about artworks thus providing the readers with considerable food for thought. On Ugliness is designed to acquaint the reader with the opposite side of beauty and its transformation in art rather than analyse how the concept of ‘ugly’ was shaped, challenged, canonised and accepted.
On Ugliness is no doubt a great addition to any coffee table. With startling images occupying sixty percent of the book and an outstanding selection of excerpts from literature and poetry, this is an excellent read for anyone, whether you are a fan of Eco’s prose or just a curious reader.
Book Review: Justin Paton’s How to look at a painting
Author: Justin Paton, 2005
Available from AWA Press
Yu Ran Kim
In How to look at a painting, Justin Paton attempts to help ‘ease’ the casual Art viewer into a mindset that will allow them to interpret works for themselves at a deeper level. Current gallery attendance of Australia has increased enormously in the past few decades. The audience consists of both professional and lay-people, proof that a visit to the art gallery has become part of everyday life. However, response to a work of art varies from person to person. If one has formal training and knowledge of art, it is natural to understand and appreciate a piece of artwork at a deeper level than an audience member from the general public. This could sometimes result in the lay-person becoming frustrated or apathetic as a result of not understanding what they are seeing.
A senior curator of Contemporary Art at Christchurch Art Gallery, Justin Paton invites the readers to travel through the worthwhile experience within the New Zealand art scene. His book, How to look at a painting, begins with his childhood encounters in the ‘art room’, where he encountered various artistic objects and old paintings. The book consists of different places, times and experiences aimed at enlightening the public on how to begin appreciating paintings.
Paton’s discussion of his experiences as a child helps the reader to understand that it became a foundation of his career as an art curator. He encourages the reader to take time to observe and question what they notice from any given painting. He recommends the reader to read the artist’s or curator’s statement about the painting. This will encourage the viewer to break the painting’s enchantment and enable the audience to converse with the artwork more intimately. He signifies that when trying to gain a deeper understanding of an image, it is important to trust the painting and your intuition.
Paton introduces the reader a range of paintings from Caravaggio to Jude Rae, a contemporary New Zealand painter, in order to demonstrate the changes in the art world from the old European masters to living artists. He meets the artists, art dealers and curators, and shares his experiences and thoughts about these people in the book. He discusses how the museum’s structure has changed; the effect of the museum if the emphasis is on the scale and appearance of the site rather than on the artwork. He offers the readers a glimpse behind the scenes of the industry.
Justin Paton is very aware of the existence and significance of paintings. He alerts the reader to the idea that painting is the foundation of all art and puts forth the notion that it should actively be undertaken by artists to preserve the tradition. He does not enforce his opinion and perception on the reader, but persuades them by travelling with the reader through his own experiences. He gently guides the reader to a better understanding of how the painting enthralls its participants and what the artist does to create that enchantment.
How to look at a painting imparts new ways of encountering art and yields more opportunity for people who enjoy paintings. It attracts a broader audience to the art scene with its uniquely personal chronology. The book becomes an instrument that guides the reader to a place of intimate observation rather than just plain viewing. It allows paintings to be appreciated at a deeper level by both artists and lay-people alike. As the 2006 Montana New Zealand Book Award for Lifestyle & Contemporary Culture recipient, How to look at a painting would be a brilliant book to begin experiencing the art scene.
Kings Way: The Beginnings of Australian Graffiti: Melbourne 1983-93
General edition cover image image courtesy of The Miegunyah Press
Authors: Duro Cubrilo, Martin Harvey and Karl Stamer, 2009
Available from The Miegunyah Press
In recent years there has been a tremendous increase in credible publications about graffiti, nationally and internationally. This can be attributed to the popularisation of the medium, thanks to advertising, design, fashion and fine art. The argument for graffiti as a valid artform is stronger than ever. The time seems right for a historical retrospective of Australian graffiti, to add an air of legitimacy. Sadly, Kings Way is not that book.
Kings Way: The Beginnings of Australian Graffiti: Melbourne 1983-93 is beautiful to look at – it has a fairly standard art book layout, a lovely glossy ‘coffee-table’ quarto that helps to position its contents as Art. Following the introduction are three main sections – Walls, Bombin’, and Panels interspersed with brief tid-bits revealing graffiti landmarks, techniques and materials. The book is loaded with detailed images, the majority taken by amateur photographers who posses a passion for graffiti, including Train Driver Ron, who concealed his zeal for documenting the subculture by pretending to be a trainspotter. The pictures are supplemented by brief paragraphs of information about well-known sites, and a quote about the artist/s.
Kings Way touts itself as a history documenting the beginnings of Australian graffiti. However, whilst the linear layout of the images creates a visual dialogue for the reader, the text is sorely lacking. The introduction forms the main body of text and starts promisingly, by presenting tantalising allusions to the influences that spawned graffiti subculture in Australia, including music, film and dance. The book hints at an insight into the mythologizing of urban warriors, and the difference between ‘writers’ and street-artists but fails to deliver a strong argument
Despite the engaging, conversational tone, the text soon deteriorates into a nine-page list of who did what with whom and where that reads like a teenaged brag sheet. There is no mention of motives, political and social debate, or even the most basic discussion of artistic merit, technique, or development. This is made worse by a saturation of graffiti jargon – writers getting up with epic burners and mad bombin’ – without any explanation of terms, making it unintelligible for the uninitiated, and a hard slog even for those with some point of reference.
However, Kings Way is not entirely without historical merit. The authors highlight the importance of the Youth Information Services and later the Victorian Association of Youth in Communities for championing the integration of graffiti into the city by sourcing legal sites, gaining permits, and by initiating competitions and training for ‘writers’. But paradoxically, there is no discussion of how these early efforts led to Melbourne’s current graffiti fuelled public art projects.
Two pages serve as testament to what could have been – the preface to Bombin’ describes the phenomenon of bombing (prolific, intense ‘tagging’ or signing of a name), and exposes the culture behind it. The author explains motives, kudos, and techniques, and reveals why certain numbers, words and letters were chosen, as well as examining the impact on the wider community. This small section is concise, informative and engaging – if only the same could be said of the whole book.
Water Tanks, Spray Cans and Crabby Councillors: The stoush over Casula’s legal graffiti walls
Image supplied courtesy of Liverpool Leader
Casula Powerhouse – like the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney and even the Tate Modern in London – was a functioning electrical plant, supplying power to surrounding suburbs in western Sydney throughout the 1950s. Today, the Powerhouse is a heritage site and centre for contemporary art. It contributes significantly to contemporary art practice and dialogue in Sydney’s art scene, whilst simultaneously providing access to cutting-edge art to the residents of Sydney’s western suburbs.
Recently, however, the Powerhouse has come under scrutiny from the same government body which provides Casula’s funding for the advancement of the arts in Western Sydney – Liverpool City Council. Why? Because as one of the many initiatives implemented by Casula, its resident water-tanks have become legal graffiti walls. And the problem? Liverpool City Council believes that these legal walls encourage the wide-spread tagging and vandalism occurring in Liverpool. But the legal walls act as a canvas for those who consider themselves ‘graf artists’ to practice their craft. Graffiti has come a long way since the 1960s, and with its pedigree in American hip-hop culture, graffiti has become a recognised art-form. Graf and street-art have become a political, social and cultural outlet for the younger generations in the Liverpool area, many of whom are from non-English speaking backgrounds or come from disadvantaged families; this in turn reflects the importance of graffiti as a avenue of expression for minority and fringe groups throughout Australia.
Liverpool councillors Gary Lucas and Peter Harle passed draft graffiti management strategies – including cash rewards for reporting vandals and the potential closure of Casula’s legal walls to public access. These councillors have been avid campaigners for ‘graffiti management’ in the local area, even if this does involve impinging on cultural institutions and their creative pursuits. The most pressing problem here would be the loss of historical heritage, along with the loss of accumulated cultural heritage – the enormous tanks are home to layer upon layer of planned and creatively executed images, slogans and symbols particular to local graffiti artists. Liverpool is a centre for both vast multicultural and indigenous populations, and Graffiti has become a universal means of communication for the younger generations. Why destroy pieces of cultural heritage, especially when initiatives like legal graffiti walls provide local kids with free lessons on how to harness their love for the spray can creatively, all under the watchful eye of practicing artists? Kids participating in these types of community-oriented workshops are participating constructively by creating works of art in a specifically allocated space, rather than tagging and vandalising public property.
Water Tanks at Casula Powerhouse, Nikki Akbar, 2009
The controversial issue was protested at Liverpool City Council chambers in early August. The Street University – a youth-aid initiative in western Sydney – beat-boxed their way from HQ in Liverpool city to council chambers in an attempt to make their point. The legal walls are a place of creativity, artistic invention – a place for “young people to express themselves.” (Danielle Long, Liverpool Leader, 29 July 2009).
The councillors, after hearing out the protesters, agreed to keep the legal walls open – at least until the next time Cr Gary Lucas decides to threaten to “shoot the bastards” (‘Sticky Beak,’ Liverpool Leader, 5 August 2009) engaged in vandalising Liverpool, or when he decides to mouth-off against graffiti artists. I think the best way to counteract these “ferals” (Danielle Long, Liverpool Leader, 5 August 2009) from vandal and hoodlum activity is to keep kids in schools, educate them adequately on the laws surrounding vandalism, and provide more legal walls around the Liverpool area where they can create murals and public art. Rather than destroying the tanks, would it not be logical to provide more sites to cultivate creativity?
Name Your Price
The name game is not just child’s play, but is often at the heart of success and failure. We might begin by asking ourselves, what is the importance of the name? I’m sure that there’s a great long list of answers, but let’s reduce it to two specific functions: Identity and reputation. To know the name of something or someone is to identify the object or the person. Knowing the name brings forth expectations, functions and subtle relationships of association. It is here, in this dynamic, that a reputation is built.
Oh to have reputation! It is the envy (or misfortune) of artists and accountants alike. The naïve would proclaim, they don’t care about what other people think or say and do as they please. The fact is, everyone cares. Why? Quite simply, it is because we live, work and exist with others. A reputation is not the opinion of one. No, it is something much more substantial. It extends from the individual to the public and becomes a means of social evaluation and progress. It is how artists are praised and their talents recognised.
The art world is subjective, but it cannot avoid the certainty of commerce. Art must be worth something and artists need money. The question is how do you begin to value or put a price on works of art? Most of the time people are left scratching their heads and looking into empty wallets. Perhaps, the answer is found with the name of the individual that held the brush and not with the painting.
The most prestigious museums and galleries will exhibit artists as though they are pedigree dogs: only the best on show. The names alone captivate their audience’s attention and draw crowds from all demographics. Like a juicy bit gossip, they draw closer. They come to see if what everyone else is saying is true, to see if the accolades of awards were rightfully bestowed and to quench their curiosity. In the art world there are implicit and explicit exchanges that set the price and create culture, as we know it.
The reputable name is a powerful resource and should be used with great caution. It engages with society and feeds the hunger to want more. At times the use of a name can be seen as another product on the shelf of consumerism: great artists are added to collections and cities are built from the purchase of celebrity names. However, like with any facelift there are times when it’s gone too far and you realise there’s no refund or exchange.
In any market, there is the risk of debt and ruin. Arguably, in a cultural market there is a greater consequence that needs to be considered: cultural debt and cultural ruin. Reputable artists, galleries and museums present to their communities a valued knowledge and experience that enriches the cultural identity of society. There is a mutual exchange of confidence founded and based upon their name. Yes, a reputation is the measure of trust of community, but it can be a single name that redeems.
You may have sold your soul, but do not let them take your name as well!