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Conversations with Picasso by Brassaï

Thursday, June 7, 2012 § 0

Pablo Picasso in Paris/The Psycho(gen)esis of the Creative Consciousness 

A Book Review by 
David Detrich

Conversations with Picasso (1999) by Brassaï—published by the University of Chicago Press—is a translation by Jane Marie Todd of the original French text which draws a verbal portrait of the painter Pablo Picasso based on conversations which take place from 1939 to 1962. The conversations with Picasso include discussions with Brassaï, Jaime Sabartés, Henri Michaux, Françoise Gilot, Dora Maar, Paul Eluard, Nusch Eluard, André Malraux, Henry Miller, Henri Matisse, and other well known writers and artists who visited Pablo Piccaso's studio. Readers of The Burial of the Count of Orgaz and other poems (2004) by Pablo Picasso will recognize the charming personality who has stayed true to his art esthetics, always going further in his exploration of abstraction. Brassaï, the well known photographer from Hungary, visited with Pablo Picasso at his studio on Rue des Grands-Augustins where he was invited to photograph Pablo Picasso's sculptures for a book. Conversations with Picasso (1999) by Brassaï is the result of a friendship that went on for years, and is a classic portrait of the most well known painter of the 20th Century in conversations that show the courage and esthetic appreciation of those who stayed on in Paris during the war years and after.

Brassaï was a photographer, filmmaker, and artist from Transylvania who discussed esthetic theory with Pablo Picasso at his studio on Rue des Grand-Augustins during the war years. What is the idea that inspires a work by Pablo Picasso?

PICASSO: I don't have a clue. Ideas are simply starting points. I can rarely set them down as they come to my mind. As soon as I start work, others well up in my pen. To know what you're going to draw, you have to begin drawing. If a man crops up, I make a man. If a woman crops up, I make a woman... When I find myself facing a blank page, that's always going through my head. What I capture in spite of myself interests me more than my own ideas.
                                              Conversations with Picasso
                                              Brassaï

When "facing a blank page" Pablo Picasso perceives either a male or female to begin his drawing, and in the process comes up with new ideas as he goes along. This is similar to the technique of psychic automatism practiced by the Surrealists, yet for Pablo Picasso he senses the gender of his models which inspires his drawings, paintings, engravings, and sculptures.

BRASSAÏ: What excited me was the vase, musical instrument, fruit aspect of the female body. That characteristic was captured in the art of the Cyclades: the woman was transformed into a sort of violin. And I was surprised to see how much the largest fruit, from "the maritime coconut palm," resembles the female posterior and abdomen. 
                                              Conversations with Picasso
                                              Brassaï

The abstraction of the female form has inspired the artist to create a metaphor for the visual images in a drawing: creating a transformation of one object into another object which expresses the contents of the unconscious or pre-conscious mind, eroticism, and a subtle sense of humor.                                                        

PICASSO: How could Michelangelo seen his David in a block of marble? Man began to make changes only because he discovered them nearly formed around him, already within reach. He saw them in a bone, in the bumps of a cave, in a piece of wood. One form suggested a woman to him, another a buffalo, still another the head of a monster.
                                               Conversations with Picasso
                                               Brassaï

Pablo Picasso teaches those who visit his studio how to envision art images emerging from what they see around them. Many people came to his studio during the war years, including the poet/painter Henri Michaux, who was known for his psychedelic researches into the creative process.

MICHAUX: When you see such a beautiful thing, it makes you happy all day.
                                                Conversations with Picasso
                                                Brassaï

The young painter Etienne Didier and his mother come to the studio to visit with Pablo Picasso, where he critiques the work of the young student.

PICASSO: That's phenomenal! What excess, what profusion. And what a painter's gift! Look at that white horse! Look how he made use of the white of the paper! He didn't use white paint for his horse, yet it turned out whiter than the paper!
                                               Conversations with Picasso
                                               Brassaï

Pablo Picasso has set a good example by encouraging young painters with complimentary thoughts, a gracious spirit that has made him a social success as an artist: those who visited with him heard insightful critical perceptions expressed in a way which can be appreciated for all time. Pablo Picasso sought perfection in his paintings, sometimes starting from a sketch, and going through successive versions until he has brought the idea into a state of perfection. 

PICASSO: You must always seek perfection. Obviously, this word doesn't have the same meaning for you and for me. For me it means: from one canvas to the next, always go further and further.
                                              Conversations with Picasso
                                              Brassaï

Going further in each canvas is what brought the degree of abstraction to a phenomenal level in the paintings of Pablo Picasso, and when speaking with the photographer Brassaï he discusses the dating of his artwork, which helps biographers to understand the psychogenesis of the creative mind.

PICASSO: Why do you think I date everything I make? Because it's not enough to know an artist's works. One must also know when he made them, why, how, under what circumstances... I want the documentation I leave posterity to be as complete as possible. 
                                             Conversations with Picasso
                                             Brassaï

Françoise Gilot is the young artist from the Sorbonne who was interested in the paintings of Pablo Picasso, and her book Life With Picasso (1964) by Françoise Gilot tells of their meeting during the Occupation of Paris by the Nazis, and their relationship which describes the conversations she had with Picasso over the next few years.

On rue des Grand-Augustins, I run into Françoise Gilot. ...she  unrolls a few recent gouaches, still lifes in vivid colors for the most part, betraying an obvious gift for painting. "I'm going to show them to Picasso," she tells me with a complicitous smile.
                                               Conversations with Picasso
                                               Brassaï

The Surrealist poet Robert Desnos was arrested in Paris that year for making a comment in a bar, and sent to a concentration camp. Liberty or Love! (1924) by Robert Desnos is a Surrealist novel that takes place on the streets of Paris, and tells the story of the romantic pursuit of a woman who is nude under her fur coat.

Friday 9 April 1944
PICASSO: Do you know they arrested Robert Desnos?
BRASSAÏ: I heard that. How terrible.
                                               Conversations with Picasso
                                               Brassaï

One day Pablo Picasso's studio was visited by André Malraux, who had news that Germany was defeated, and that the cities were now occupied by the French army. After the Liberation Pablo Picasso continued with his painting, drawings, and sculptures, and an exhibition of his artwork was held in Paris.

PICASSO: I always aim for likeness. A painter has to observe nature, but must never confuse it with painting. It can be translated into painting only with signs. But you do not invent a sign. Your must aim hard at likeness to get to the sign. For me, surreality is simply that, and has never been anything else, the profound likeness beyond the shapes and colors by means of which things present themselves.
                                                 Conversations with Picasso
                                                 Brassaï

My novel-in-progress The Convergence of Two Narrative Lines Ascending is influenced by the paintings of Pablo Picasso, and the unpunctuated poetry of The Burial of the Count of Orgaz and other poems (2004) by Pablo Picasso, which has followed a trend that other writers including: James Joyce, Philippe Sollers, Ronald Sukenick, and Raymond Federman have developed in their novels: polysemantic wordplay based on sentence structures of unpunctuated prose. Pablo Picasso has taught us how to envision the modern in art and poetry, and his dramatic works include Desire Caught by the Tail (1941) which reveals his innovative style with the use of concrete objects.

Reading the works of Gertrude Stein along with Pablo Picasso brings the themes of Cubism into context with modern literature, as the 20th Century novel becomes more abstract and self-reflexive with a metafictional awareness of composition as a description of events taking place in time: either chronological or simultaneous, avant garde minimal in repetitious narrative logic, and future perfect when the time of the reading occurs.

Pierre Daix has written the introduction to Conversations with Picasso (1999) by Brassaï, and shows insight into the innovative techniques used by Picasso.

Just as quickly, Brassaï recognized Picasso's sense for innovation in his wire sculptures"outline drawings in space," Kahnweiler called themand he gives an assessment of the abstract quality, noting quite rightly that they are "in some sense the plastic replicas of the Studio paintings of 1927-28."
                                                                  Introduction
                                                                  Pierre Daix

Brassaï has written about the American novelist in Henry Miller: The Paris Years (1975) by Brassaï, and he has photographed two of the most interesting people in Paris before, and during, the war years. In Conversations with Picasso (1999) Brassaï has given us a verbal portrait of Pablo Picasso that can be read with Life With Picasso (1964) by Françoise Gilot to get a detailed understanding of the events and relationships that have produced the most significant artwork of the 20th Century by an artist whose dedication to his art and esthetic theory, and the friends who helped him along, has led the way for a new generation of artists and writers.

David Detrich lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where he has just completed The Convergence of Two Narrative Lines Ascending, an ultramodern Surrealist novel written in minimal squares. This year he is working on Dream the Presence of the Circular Breast Starfish Topography, a monumental Surrealist novel written with innovative typographical design. His first novel Big Sur Marvels & Wondrous Delights (2001) is available from Amazon. He is the editor of Innovative Fiction Magazine and Surrealist Star Clustered Illuminations.

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