The picture shown at left was painted in 1895 when the artist was just fourteen, the same age as the young girl. It is one of the first paintings you see when you visit L’hôtel Salé in Paris.
Standing there and seeing this painting for the first time, I was immediately struck by the eyes. Large, round, black eyes with a compelling gaze out onto the world.
The artist was, of course, Pablo Ruiz Picasso; the man who dominated twentieth century art and those eyes became a recurring theme in his work over the next eighty years.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, Picasso seemed to know what power lay in the eyes.
And the eyes do have an unknown power, as Rupert Sheldrake asserts in his book The Sense Of Being Stared At.
Plato imagined light from a ball of fire emanating from the eye and combining with sunlight to hit the object seen and this is then reflected back to the eye.
Sheldrake and Plato are not the only ones to believe in the extramission theory of the eyes.
Again and again, the eyes are the main point of interest in his paintings regardless of the style he uses (or invents) We see it here in the two central figures in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, one of his most celebrated works.
In this, lesser known, work we can see the wide-eyed excitement of a child taking its first steps. This is a wonderful painting in other ways; the overarching protectiveness of the mother and the delicacy of her touch as she guides the child without grasping too tightly.
When Picasso died in 1973 it was as if a line had been drawn under the visual arts with the implicit message- follow that!
And we have been unable to do so. Over the subsequent four decades the art world has been floundering, looking for the next big thing and finding nothing of substance.
Painting has more or less disappeared and the visual arts have degenerated into infantilism and ineptitude. Words have now replaced images in that every ‘artist’ must now have an Artist’s Statement (full of meaningless platitudes) or, even worse, a manifesto! and the artworks themselves are often covered in writing. Everything now needs to be explained as if we had lost the ability to see or, more likely, artists can no longer make the invisible visible.
It seems appropriate somehow that history’s greatest painter should be the one to bring an end to the visual arts. And for those who cannot accept such an assertion, I say only – open your eyes/mind and look! Or in the words of J. Winston Lennon –
Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see.
The last word must go to Sir Roland Penrose; from his biography of Picasso:
The virtue common to all great painters is that they teach us to see, but few have had a more compelling way of doing so than Picasso. His power has enchanted those who are susceptible and enraged those who resent being disturbed by his brilliance. Art itself should teach us to free ourselves from the rules of art, and this is precisely what the art of Picasso has done.
There is also reason to be grateful for the violence that he has used, for in our time, when signs of apathy and despair are easy to detect, it is only a resounding and decisive passion that can succeed. As he himself has said: “The essential in this time of moral poverty is to create enthusiasm.” Without the awakening of ardent love, no life and therefore no art has any meaning.