From non-art affectionados Picasso’s cubist paintings or simple line sketches may elicit comments such as “any kid could have drawn that.”
A superficial introduction to art history will often focus on a handful of “daring and creative” artists who pushed the envelope and started a movement, as if they were courageous outliers or misfits who refused to cave into societal expectation or fads or styles and just did their own thing.
In fact “Art for Art’s sake” is a mantra we’ve inherited from Fin de siècle (1890~1900) modernists, which has never quite been true.
Brief History Lesson: Since the beginning of civilization, artists made things of beauty that people appreciated. For thousands of years, skill, method and talent was rigorously improved. It got to the point that unless you were incredibly gifted, you couldn’t get into the best art schools for more training, which meant you had zero chance of becoming a career artist.
Which led to a whole bunch of really frustrated creative people, who began to rebel against the classically organized art academies. In 1887 Gustav Klimt was co-founder of the Secession Movement in Vienna, which was part of a general movement away from ‘classical’ art. Art no longer had to be “functional” (ie, pleasant to look at). It didn’t matter if anybody liked it. It just had to be NEW.
So a whole bunch of people with marginal training or talent (the ability to paint representationally, using perspective, proper dimensions and proportion) started making a whole bunch of stuff. Not incidentally, the 1890’s were also rife with new, exciting substances and scientific discoveries, like heroin and cocaine, which led to rampant experimentation in novel moods and sensations. (Freud wrote about the benefits of cocaine in 1884, and “Coca-Cola” was introduced in 1886. Heroin was developed as a ‘non-addictive’ cure for morphine dependency.)
But this week I read the particularly entertaining Book of Absinthe: A Cultural History, which introduced me to unsavory, yet riotous, facts of Picasso’s humble beginnings. In short, he was a brash young punk blatantly copying better artists, with no creative thought in his head, repetitively trying to cash in on the ruling trends and fads – mostly, absinthe – which is directly responsible for all of Picasso’s best work, including the “blue period” and the invention of cubism.
A little background on Absinthe
During the French colonial wars from 1830-1847, absinthe rations were given to protect from malaria and kill bacteria in drinking water. The active chemical in Wormwood, the main ingredient in Absinthe, is thujone – which has a chemical similarity to DEET (used in most mosquito repellants). Although it caused a few cases of delusional insanity, the soldiers brought the custom home with them.
In the late 19th century, a rising middle class sought to emulate a leisurely lifestyle that had previously only been possible for aristocrats. Absinthe drinking became dignified and glamorous; it was associated with the opera, high class, and conspicuous consumption. It was a respectable bourgeois custom before dinner.
This was the era of fancy dinner parties and wit – but also of scandal and sexual innappropriacy; it was the era of Oscar Wilde and Baudelaire, and the creation of art meant to shock and startle.
Absinth was a smart, fun, artsy drink of young men of fashion (a “dandy”). And its sensory-enhancing novelty was appreciated creative thinkers trying to find a new style. The main problem was that, since skill and talent didn’t matter anymore, it was really hard for anybody to know what was valuable. So the majority of these young artists couldn’t make any money (and worse, were often ridiculed in the press.)
But it made them all sickly and hopelessly addicted alcoholics… life in the city became jaded, frustrating, depressing, disgusting, unbearable. Poor, starving artists who spent all their money on absinthe became a cultural cliche; even (or especially) the more successful ones died literally penniless on the street with their face in the gutter.
Bohemia was “the stage of the less well known or struggling writers and artists who might one day end up in the Academie Francaise, but might equally end up in the asylum, the charity ward, or the morgue.”
Absinthe, also called “madness in a bottle” was a central feature of this period.
in 1874, 700,000 litres a year were produced; by 1910 it had increased to thirty-six million.
Beyond mere alcoholism, long term absinthe use led to psychosis and extreme paranoia.
Violent love affairs with stab wounds and pistols fired were commonplace.
Absinthe was the cultural symbol of everything that was going on: the murkiness and moral confusion after the dissolution of grand religious narratives; the crowding of the cities and unstable job market; uncertainty and pointlessness of life…
The first painting of absinthe was by Manet in 1859.
Near the completion of the painting, Manet showed the work to his former master, who retorted: “An absinthe drinker! And they paint abominations like that! My poor friend, you are the absinthe drinker. It is you who have lost your moral sense.”
It’s worth noticing however, that Manet was already painting basically the same thing; lots of poor, disheveled bums.
Here is “The Philosopher” painted in 1867.
In fact the glass of absinthe in the absinthe drinker was a later addition to the painting. Rather than ‘holding out’ and ‘not being swayed by fads’ … artists of the time (like all artists really should) added elements that were trending, that would connect with people, that would be contemporary and relevant.
Still, The Absinthe Drinker was submitted to and rejected by the Paris Salon in 1859; mostly because it was so unpolished – you could even see the brushstrokes, oh my! So many paintings were rejected by hopeful young artists that they got together and created the Salon des Refusés in 1863.
Edgar Degas painted L’Absinthe in 1876. A Gazette critic called it
The perfection of ugliness… The colour is as repulsive as the figures; a brutal, sensual-looking french workman and a sickly looking grisette; a most unlovely couple.”
But times were changing… someone actually bought it, and it was sold at Christies in 1892 (although the public hissed at it).
Another critic in Westminster Gazette:
Any one who valued dignity and beauty would never be induced to consider L’Abinsthe a work of art.
Even if not the obvious subject, the emerging styles of the day were influenced by the heavy drinking and visionary distortions it caused.
The first stage is like ordinary drinking, the second when you begin to see cruel and monstrous things…But if you can persevere you will enter in upon the third stage where your see things that you want to see.” -Oscar Wilde
A commenter on Lautrec’s paintings (like this one) said they were “entirely painted by absinthe.”
I also like this one by Axel Törneman in 1902:
Absinthe was a staple in literature as well – not only poetic ballads to its pleasures, but also as a social destabilizer.
In Zola’s 1880 novel Nana, a sexy lesbian couple stays in with a bottle instead of going down and drinking beer with the men.
Working women were less inclined to grab a man to support them, so for single young men who hadn’t the money or confidence to flirt, absinthe became a constant companion.
Albert Maignan painted the “Green Muse” in 1895.
Czech painter Viktor Oliva did something similar in 1901.
But when Absinthe became cheaper than beer; it was more and more associated with the working classes, which was bad for production.
The early heroes of creativity and aesthetics and “Art for Art’s Sake!” were growing up, getting old, constantly drunk, chronically sick and impoverished, and dying early.
The whole atmosphere was portrayed in Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)… beautiful young men becoming horrid, wretched, impoverished, crazy.
Even worse, a break down in the class boundaries led to opulent places like the Cafe Royal, who sold absinthe cheap and let the working classes enjoy a taste of luxury (usually on Sundays, which made Monday an unofficial holiday since nobody could get any work done).
Orphen, 1912 Cafe Royale
Enter Picasso, Stage Right
Just after this whole devolution of art and absinthe, when legendary poets had suffered through a decade of addiction, gone poor and crazy and/or died, Picasso arrived 1900 with his friend Carlos Casagemas.
What did the young Picasso decide to paint? Absinthe, of course.
In 1901 he painted the cleverly titled The Woman Drinking Absinthe and Absinthe Drinker.
With no style of his own, he experimented with other people’s styles.
Picasso associated Absinthe with Baudelairean tradition of low-life urban and cafe subjects, and particularly with Alfred Jarry (an eccentric friend of Oscar Wilde’s), who fascinated him so much he emulated him by drinking absinthe and carrying a revolver.
Not content to copy, Picasso was jealous and prone to competition.
He hated Matisse and had his friends write graffiti all over the walls; “Matisse’s paintings will drive you mad”
A year after they’d arrived in Paris, Carlos started seeing the wife of Ramon Pichot (another friend of Picasso’s) but then tried to shoot her (in a jealousy and absinthe fueled binge, perhaps?) but he failed, so then shot himself (maybe worried that Pichot would hunt him down out of honor).
Given people liked to carry pistols around, and that everybody was getting smashed on Absinthe which caused extreme paranoia and other negative emotions, there were lots of suicides during this period.
At any rate, this (it is claimed) is why Picasso started painting things in blue. The subject however, didn’t change much. Phil Baker comments:
Picasso’s early work were studies of poverty and depression-ridden subjects, painted in tones of blue and green. Absinthe-drinking seems to figure in these pictures as an instance of addiction, angst and psychic extremity.”
Was Picasso clinically depressed after losing his friend? I don’t think so.
He was just painting subjects that were already popular – poverty, cafe shops, solitary figures and absinthe.
He even painted some clowns, because Lautrec and other artists had been doing it to some success.
The blue coloration is new… but in 1903 Picasso switched to a short-lived “Rose Period” instead.
He was probably using blue or rose colored glass and just experimenting with stuff. But pink didn’t go over as well, since depression was more suited to the pulse of the times.
Was he inspired by divine genius, listening to inspiration, and doing what he was really passionate about?
No. Look, more clowns and poor people and isolated, emotionless figures.
I’m not saying these aren’t awesome, and Picasso seems to be developing a style… but really, he’s copying other people’s styles. Picasso was so well known for thieving ideas, other artists started to hide their work when he dropped by.
In a great article called The Picasso Problem the author reflects on an exhibition comparing Degas’ influence on Picasso and writes:
Not for nothing did he quip, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” (And needless to say, Picasso considered himself a very great artist.) Over and over again, in “Picasso Looks at Degas,” the Spaniard seems crude and groping, and the Frenchman poised and refined.
In 1912 he started doing what came to known as Cubism. Actually, he was just using absinthe bottles and glasses to fragment the scene. Here’s A Bottle of Pernod (absinthe) and Glass.
Picasso also published some pictures of a statistically deconstructed guitar and violin in a little magazine, with only fourteen subscribers. After Picasso’s instruments appeared, thirteen of them wrote in and cancelled their subscription.
In 1914, he tried his hand at sculpture. What did he make?
A series of six strange Absinthe Glasses. Here’s one (can you see the spoon and sugar cube on top?)
Personally, I think it’s crap, but I like my art to have at least some skill or quality, take some time to produce, and be emotionally moving.
But modern critics have called it “A defiant celebration of the now clearly endangered drink.”
Due to the destructive influences of Absinthe, the prohibition movement had been gaining speed.
Germany declared war on 13th August, 1914 – on the 16th, absinthe was prohibited.
“Follow your passion” and “Art for Art’s Sake” (art is 100% non-functional) led to a generation of highly creative young men who became drunks and died horribly. A few produced some quality material – but even those who became famous did so equally by virtue of their bizarre, dangerous and violent lifestyles of excess, self-destruction, self-pity, remorse and introspection, and an increasing sense of meaninglessness.
Picasso escaped all of this by being a latecomer, when absinthe was on its way out but he took advantage of it by continuing to focus on the most prevalent and common artistic theme of the past 20 years.
He didn’t ask himself, “What am I passionate about? What do I like to draw? What do I want to do?”
He looked around and said, “What’s everybody else doing? What’s a hot social issue of controversy, with powerful emotional influences?”
Paintings of sad people drinking absinthe alone were already common. Paintings distorted or blurred or “green” referencing the inebriated state of absintheurs were already common. But Picasso nevertheless spent 14 years painting them anyway.
Sure, Cubism was an intellectual leap – he invented something new – but it was still very much tied to contemporary movements and the objects and theme of absinthe. And he only accidentally became famous because weirdos like the symbolists and dadaists were looking for bizarre, ugly, provocative, “anti-art”.
And although he tried a few other things, mostly he painted absinthe, over and over again.
1. The reigning ideology of creative production (at least for most writers and artists) is the same one that leads to failure and ruin. “Art” is not a viewer-less, self-contained miracle of divine inspiration. “Art” is not doing whatever you feel like doing. It does not have inherent value regardless of its degree of quality, skill or potential interest to other people.
2. The greatest, most successful, big name artists in history always got right in the heart of popular art movements, noticed what was trendy or popular, saw the things that everybody was talking about or reacting to, borrowed heavily from all other artists they could find, put it all together in a perfect blend of awesomeness (hard-core consumer sell-outism) and then marketed the Hell out of it.
There are a few notable exceptions, like Van Gogh, but even the tragic life he lived so exactly matched the current archetype of the failed genius that it helped his later claim to fame; also, his paintings were definitely close to the art movements and styles of his time – bright colors, bold strokes, disregard for perspective, etc).
When Van Gogh couldn’t afforded absinthe, he started drinking paint thinner and eating his lead-containing oil paints. (Oil painting is toxic, even the fumes can make you dizzy. The relationship between mental instability and art isn’t a sign of the “crazy madness of inspiration” – it’s a result of drinking too much and painting all the time.
Van Gogh wasn’t content to just paint, he desperately wanted to be a successful, recognized, gallery artists and was trying. If he’d waited ten years instead of shooting himself in 1890, he probably would have been. (By the way – some evidence suggests he was shot accidentally by a malfunctioning gun.)
Also, here’s a Van Gogh of workers drinking absinthe.
3. You’ve got to believe it, and you’ve got to sell it. You are what you say you are. You are a part of the story. Go do awesome things. Find a war to join or a movement to champion. Pick a fight and go to jail. Find a way to stand out and be extraordinary. Write your own legend. And PRODUCE a shit load of content. When you find something people seem to like and respond to, keep doing it.
It’s easier to see what Picasso was doing by pairing paintings (I’m not sure if I’ve got these right). But basically Picasso looked at someone else’s painting and then fucked it up.
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.