two types on modern artists -- 4/12/17

Today's selection -- from Old Masters and Young Geniuses by David W. Galenson. Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso, two of the greatest modern artists, approached painting very differently. Paul Cézanne was an experimental innovator and Pablo Picasso a conceptual innovator. Here we see the difference:

"There have been two very different types of artist in the modern era. These two types are distinguished not by their importance, for both are promi­nently represented among the greatest artists of the era. They are distin­guished instead by the methods by which they arrive at their major contri­butions. In each case their method results from a specific conception of artistic goals, and each method is associated with specific practices in creating art. I call one of these methods aesthetically motivated experi­mentation, and the other conceptual execution. ...

Les Grandes Baigneuses, 1898-1905

"The precision of their goals allows conceptual artists to be satisfied that they have produced one or more works that achieve a particular purpose. Unlike experimental artists, whose inability to achieve their vague goals can tie them to a single problem for a whole career, the conceptual artist's ability to consider a problem solved can free him to pursue new goals. The careers of some important conceptual artists have consequently been marked by a series of innovations, each very different from the others. Thus whereas over time an experimental artist typically produces many paintings that are closely related to each other, the career of the concep­tual innovator is often distinguished by discontinuity.

"Two of the greatest modern artists epitomize the two types of innovator. In September 1906, just a month before his death, sixty-seven-year-old Paul Cézanne wrote to a younger friend, the painter Émile Bernard:

Now it seems to me that I see better and that I think more correctly about the direction of my studies. Will I ever attain the end for which I have striven so much and so long? I hope so, but as long as it is not attained a vague state of uneasiness persists which will not disappear until I have reached port, that is until I have realized something which develops better than in the past, and can thereby prove the theories­ -- which in themselves are always easy; it is giving proof of what one thinks that raises serious obstacles. So I continue to study. ...

"The irony of Cézanne's frustrations and fears at the end of his life stems from the fact that it was his most recent work, the paintings of his last few years, that would come to be considered his greatest contribution and would directly influence every important artistic development of the next generation.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon  

"[In contrast,] Picasso often planned his paintings carefully in advance. During the winter of 1906-7, he filled a series of sketchbooks with preparatory stud­ies for Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, the large painting that would become his most famous single work. Historian William Rubin estimated that Picasso made more than four hundred studies for the Demoiselles, 'a quantity of preparatory work ... without parallel, for a single picture, in the entire history of art.' The painting was a brutal departure from the lyrical works of the rose period that immediately preceded it, and its ar­rival jolted Paris's advanced art world. Henri Matisse angrily denounced the painting as an attempt to ridicule the modern movement, and even Georges Braque, who would later realize that he and Picasso 'were both headed in the same general direction,' initially reacted to the painting by comparing Picasso to a fairground fire-eater who drank kerosene to spit flames. The importance of the Demoiselles stems from its announcement of the beginning of the Cubist revolution, which Picasso and Braque would develop in the next few years. As historian John Golding has ob­served, Cubism was a radical conceptual innovation, based not on vision but on thought: 'Even in the initial stages of the movement, when the painters still relied to a large extent on visual models, their paintings are not so much records of the sensory appearance of their subjects, as expressions in pictorial terms of their idea or knowledge of them. "I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them," Picasso said.'

"Picasso's certainty about his art contrasted sharply with Cézanne's doubt. Thus in 1946, when he was sixty-five, Picasso told his companion Françoise Gilot that his work was so often interrupted by visitors that he frequently did not push his works 'to their ultimate end,' but he knew that he could do this when he wished: 'In some of my paintings I can say with certainty that the effort has been brought to its full weight and conclusion.' He explained to a biographer that his certainty came from the clarity of his conception: '"The key to everything that happens is here," he said one day, pointing to his forehead. "Before it comes out of the pen or brush, the key is to have it at one's fingertips, entirely, without losing any of it." '"



David W. Galenson


Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity


Princeton University Press


Copyright 2006 by Princeton University Press


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