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Rembrandt: Bathsheba
Bathsheba by Picasso

Joe's Art Journal 1998 Year 1 No. 7 Sep 10

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This series is not intended to be a university course. I am not an art scholar, I am just a painter and art lover only. As lover I will approach one of the works of art the heritage of all mankind has left us, one by one, week after week, as long as I can. I will keep my investigation personal and simple, meant to open your eyes to see for yourself. Words can be used as a means to that end, but it is rather the space between the words that does the work. A great master of the art of appreciation of art, Kurt Rossacher of Vienna, demanded to see with nose first, eyes, tongue, heart, and only at last with the brain.

Your appreciation will give me the power and strength to endure. It is for you and all the great masters that I do this work, and I hope you will enjoy it. So don't hesitate to send me your feedback in order to help me with that goal! This kind of journal is new to the net, so please tell me if the size is ok (images are great, but big!).

As I am writing in a foreign language, I am not sure to express myself correctly, but I hope you will be able to guess what I mean any time.

Also, I invite you to join in my effort. Send me your articles and comments to be published in this journal.

Yours truly,

Rembrandt: Bathsheba (scans by Mark Harden, Carol Gerten and the publisher)

(To get a blowup while offline: Connect to the internet, click , then disconnect).

Bathsheba by Picasso

You know by now that I love Rembrandt. I love Picasso, too. I own more books about Picasso than about Rembrandt. Of course, there are more about him on the market, too. Picasso is much more controversial than Rembrandt, being dead and discussed for centuries. Picasso is still enigmatic and only slowly assimilated. He is by far not so popular as poor Vincent van Gogh, for example. Many people think he made fun of people. I quote from Daily Drawing 1.26

"Common belief is, the modern artist is a botcher all right, making fun of the public, and people feel uncomfortable being laughed at. There are legions of stories on that theme, one of the last I know of happened early this year: A preschool Danish boy was awarded an eminent prize for abstract painting. There sure is a problem here. Those experts could not tell works of matured artists from those of a child void of artistic want. Confusion rises high everywhere, obviously. At El Quatre Gats, for example, you can read how confused, even furious people are about Picasso."

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Picasso is on my mind as long as Rembrandt. He still lived when I had a first insight in all of his work. One year prior to his death in 1973 the first book on his work of age was published. Still a student, I bought this book well out of my price range. I did not judge then, I tried to understand. I knew that it is hard to follow someone to regions not known before. Who was I to have an opinion on a genius? Later I found others had, and by time, I had, too.

In Art Journal 1.3, I already mentioned Picasso:
"Picasso is famous for letting distortion work for him at will to produce feelings not to be expressed otherwise. In his case, these were mostly negative feelings, as in Guerníca, but there are positive, such as love and tenderness, too, seen very often in his portaits of Marie-Therèse.
Picasso, Guerníca, clipping Picasso, Marie-Therèse, clipping
I owe much to John Berger's "Success and Failure of Picasso" (short review here). He claims that Picasso suffered much from absence of critique, even from his friends. (A short phrase comes to mind from the recent movie "Good Will Hunting": "Do you have a friend? A real friend? Someone who challenges you?" [Retranslated from memory]). I'll try my best today to show you how far Picasso failed with Bathsheba.

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There are many books from friends about Picasso's later years, notably by Françoise Gilot and Hélène Parmelin, quoting Picasso at large. It is obvious that he does not know what to paint at times. He envies van Gogh having been able to invent new themes, which is ridiculous, Vincent being short of themes himself. Often he resorts to paraphrasing, justifying it to himself. I'll recall from my memory: "After all, what is a painter? A collector not being able to buy the works he wants, trying to paint them hiself. But whatever I do, I spoil it and it becomes a Picasso."

That's all right. A Picasso it must be. In his younger years, he imitated many painters and made great Picassos. In his age, he produced lots of bad paintings. He took Manet's "Déjeuner sur l'Herbe", Delacroix' "Women of Algier", Velasquez' "Las Meninas", to name a few and the most famous.

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Great Bust

Tacke, Great Bust

by Tina Tacke, Gallery Clay at Art Quarter

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He took Rembrandt twice for paintings, but did only one paraphrase each, much in contrast to the other painters, where he produced huge series. One was Bathsheba. The other a self portrait of Rembrandt with his newly wed wife Saskia posing as "The prodigal son" from the Bible, famous parable from the New Testament.

Picasso's painting is dated 63-03-13, 130*162cm, 51x64". Rembrandt's is from c. 1636, the same size, but portrait format, hanging in Dresden. it is obvious that Rembrandt projected the deep story of the bible to his personal fate, seemingly happy at the beginning, reminding him of life's abundance. The prodigal son waists his father's heritage, dwells in misery, returns home and is welcomed by his father, much to the dismal of his brave brother, staying at home.

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Picasso, Rembrandt and Saskia
Rembrandt, Prodigal son

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This parable tells us that it is necessary to leave home, explore the world and fail, coming home torn and experienced. This was Rembrandt's fate, too. The painting is very deep, you can look at it very long and get lost, but this is not our topic here. There is a second version of the parable, done at high age, very moving, showing the father caressing his miserable son kneeling down before him.

A quick look at Picasso's version shows that it is void of all meaning. How can a man of 80 years with a rich life produce such a miserable, empty, confused piece of work? It is not even good as a piece of painting, as far as can be concluded from reproductions. If you care, look at the blowup. Now let's return to Bathsheba. Here we will see the discrepancy even more blatantly.

Rembrandt's painting is 142*142cm or 56x56" in square format, Picasso's is 140*195cm or 55*77", hence it is equal in height, but longer. So he needs more space to show what he gets at. And what is it that he achieves?

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Picasso, Bathsheba
Rembrandt, Bathsheba

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Even if you look at the blowup, you'll find nowhere an interesting form invention, nowhere an extraordinary color, on the contrary, it is all but crude, brutal, empty, meaningless. There are lots of brutal, even crude, but great paintings by Picasso. Here all is just dead, burnt out. A great effort to get nothing.

Look for example at that suffering woman at the beginning! Look at every detail in that face! Everything has meaning and enhances the whole. Not here. The form inventions don't mean anything, they don't convince, they don't hint at something hidden to be shown only when done this way. All these forms are just miscarried, arbitrary, unrelated.

Compare, if you like, with a young man's painting discussed in Creative Journal 1.6; you'll see weak forms and rude colors also, but you'll see clearly that the painter did not cheat, neither himself nor us. He was struggling and did not know better, he's got to find his way yet. Picasso's painting is the work of an old, most successful painter, a genius smashed to the ground finally.

One of the rare public commissions come to mind: Picasso's huge painting for the United Nations in Paris. "The Fall of Ikarus" it was called, and it is equally embarrassing, even more so as the painting has been donated publicly. There are photos showing politicians and celebrities, trying to look not too dumb. Among them Picasso obviously not knowing what he did.

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This paraphrase of one of Rembrandt's great paintings does have an impact nevertheless, but it is no sign of greatness, failure only. What a pity! It is proof not only that Picasso could fail - he was human, too, that's nothing to take special notice of. It shows that Picasso suffered from meaninglessness in his life, whereas Rembrandt did not.

I don't doubt, however, that we'll see this painting one day in one of our museums presented to us as an example of great modern painting. In modern art, criticism is very hollow. Critics and scholars alike did not recover yet from the shock of the last century when they supported faint, decayed academic art.

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The phenomenon is puzzling indeed. It occurred to me that the author of the book I took the reproduction from could have been guided by respect of or even fear from the heirs, being obviously dependent due to copyright questions. These days Picasso's son Claude does persecute an American professor (Dr. Enrique Mallen) trying to develop an encompassing Picasso resource (Picasso - Museo Picasso Virtual). Claude is sufficiently rich from his father, so maybe it is his publisher, Grolier Interactive, pushing him into this suit.

But rereading the comments of one of our eminent art historians lead me to the conclusion that he really means what he writes. If you just have to be courteous and clever, you don't have to prostitute yourself as he does. And if that is so, the state of our art reception is very low, mildly expressed.

Compare this to the music world performing traditional western music! Competition is extremely hard, gets ever harder with modern conservation methods, there are contests held worldwide, and if a star is born, he's really got something to give. Take Anne-Sophie Mutter featured as a young girl by Karajan for example.

But even with more modern forms, jazz or rock, you can easily tell if a musician is good at his instrument. Miles Davis was a superb instrumentalist having contributed many times to new stylistic forms. You can see this decay at his end, too. He died suddenly, so we don't know what might have come else. But even when playing dubious shallow melodies, easily adopted to commercials, he is a master at his instrument to be identified within a fraction of a second by the connoisseur.

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We started with Rembrandt, let this for a while pass before your eyes again. Remember how Rembrandt reinterpreted the Biblical story, how he transferred the story to an image about a secondary figure, how he was able to show the depth of life in the expression of this one figure, how his personal feelings and experiences intermingled with the traditional tale, how he used the story to find out about himself.

I'm sure, you'll never forget this painting.

Last week:
David's lesson

Next week:
Chagall: Cattle Dealer

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