I First Loved Picasso

As a kid, sometime around age twelve, I discovered my mother’s art books. She protected her prized tomes within plastic covers, locked behind the glass doors of a large, bright yellow wooden bookcase. Her collection included overviews of the Renaissance, Ancient Greece, and Lost Worlds, as well as Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Rubens, Durer, and Michelangelo —all massive books she purchased while an art student at LSU around 1960.

Art books are expensive, and back in those days her family (an overnight success story in the oil industry in the mid-1950s) had the money to support the whims they understood, such as fashion and cars (in my mother’s case, a yearly new Cadillac convertible), as well as the whims they never understood — her major in Fine Arts and her collection of art books.

By the time my sister and I appeared, the money was gone, the dresses relegated to a ‘costume closet,’ and the cars long sold. But the art books remained (and remain) protected and precious. Among them is a boxed set of linen-covered monographs of ‘modern’ artists. These include Klee, Kandinsky, Dali, Braque, and my favorite, Picasso (pictured).

Pablo Picasso died in France in the spring of 1973. I was a young child, but I recall my mother showing me his work and talking about this ‘creative genius.’ Her hero-worship affected me, and the artist rose even higher on that pedestal when my elementary school art teachers chose him for our studies. Looking back, they probably found Picasso more accessible to young students than the more ‘lofty’ Abstract Expressionism of the day, as typified by artists like Motherwell and de Kooning. (Pop Art, as far as I can tell, was either not yet understood or not yet taken seriously enough to be worthy of the classroom).

Ironically, a decade earlier, as George Rodrigue studied art in Lafayette and Los Angeles, he too faced the lingering academic art of the day, Abstract Expressionism. Yet it was Pop Art, a movement dismissed by his teachers, which made the biggest impression on him during these years. (See the post Art School: Lafayette and Los Angeles, 1962-1967)

When I reached high school and later studied Art History in college, I recall Picasso as practically vilified in academic circles. There was talk that he hadn’t done anything worthy of study since Cubism or Guernica, and that he ‘lost his touch’ as an old man, floundering between grotesque figures and half-hearted revisits of his earlier styles. (below, a late Picasso)

Rather than discourage me, these criticisms made me more curious, and I poured through my mother’s books searching for the answers — hoping to train my own eye to see the master’s downfall in his artwork.

Yet I saw only brilliance.

I returned to his simplest images repeatedly, and I wondered: Why should this picture be in a book? Why should he call it finished? What could it possibly mean? Why do I come back to it again and again? (pictured, A Bull on canvas by Picasso, and below that, a Face on ceramic)

And finally, why is it that I would give up all my worldly possessions to own a simple Picasso drawing when even I, who can’t so much as draw a daisy, could probably produce a fair copy?

It was during this time that ‘art’ took on specific meanings for me. I became an art snob in my circle-of-one. I gained freedom of thought, and I dared to look at art in my own way.

Little did I know that I was training for my future life with an artist, not only to study the work itself (for my own appreciation of what George has done in the past, for the projects currently on his easel, and for his unwillingness to retrace old ground); but also to face both the obvious insults (“my 8 year-old kid could paint that!”) as well as the disguised ones (“Rodrigue is a brilliant businessman, a marketing genius!”*)

* George insists that I’m overly sensitive in this area and that most people don’t see this attitude as a negative. Perhaps he’s right, but it still places me on the defensive. (pictured, Untitled Sketch by Rodrigue 1994)

Picasso’s whole life — the Blue Period, Cubism, the African paintings, and so much more — is inside his simplest works. Had he painted them all at age nineteen, they would mean nothing. But at age ninety, they mean everything. The fact that he probably painted some in a matter of minutes or that second grade students everywhere can duplicate some of his most abstracted designs is irrelevant.

I asked George about Picasso, and he pulled a well-worn book, Goodbye Picasso, (by David Douglas Duncan, Grosset & Dunlap, 1974) from the shelf, turned to a bookmarked page and said:

“I remember how messy his house was, and I was so impressed.”

He also describes an art school assignment at the Art Center College of Design, in which he was ‘to create a painting in the style of an old master.’ George chose a guitar and collage, ala Picasso. (pictured on top, a Picasso “Guitar” from 1912; below, Rodrigue’s “Guitar” from 1965)

I’ve told George for years that he’s Picasso in many classrooms — not the same artist and not the same talent, but a similar inspiration to what I recall from my own school years. It’s all so familiar (and somewhat unsettling), as though I’ll look up at my mother’s books and see “Rodrigue” not on a shiny new book, but on the worn-out titles and the plastic-covered jackets. (It’s the same eerie feeling I had at the New Orleans Museum of Art, where their memorabilia room held George’s various personal items — the same things I see everyday in our house).

Unsurprisingly, as George grows older the critics take notice of his early works, the same pieces they denounced not only as he painted them, but for thirty years following. (Consider Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon, reviled in its day, and now considered his masterpiece; consider George’s first review, “Artist Paints Dreary, Monotonous Oaks” (from the Baton Rouge Advocate), the same works that today many in this region’s academic art world claim are his best). (pictured, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon from 1907; Rodrigue’s Louisiana: The State We Live In from 1972)

Again, I’m comparing the two artist’s situations, not their actual artwork. Also, keep in mind that one coveted the world’s approval, while the other hoped for the approval of his artistic peers in his home state.

And yet again and again I hear from teachers and students that George is the only living artist on their syllabus. They study his Blue Dog paintings alongside Monet’s Water Lilies, Van Gogh’s Self-portraits, and even Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Just as my teachers found Picasso more accessible to young students than the abstract expressionists, today’s teachers may choose Rodrigue over conceptual, installation, and ‘intellectual’ artists for the same reason.

Like Picasso, George Rodrigue reinvents himself. Most artists hope for one unique series of work discernible as their own. And yet both Picasso and Rodrigue accomplished this multiple times. They both recognized the importance of a unique idea.

This is the only real comparison I dare to make between Picasso and Rodrigue — and it in no way links their actual artwork. To go further would be overly presumptuous on my part and would invite criticism the likes of which I am unable (and unwilling) to combat. (George too would be mortified by my gall in doing so). I am only drawing the connection between Picasso’s unwitting participation in my discovery of art as a child and what I know for a fact to be George’s similar role in classrooms today.

George, although extremely confident in his art, is uncomfortable with his artistic legacy (and particularly any link to the masters). He’s still working towards it and, more than anything, hoping for it. (pictured, Mars Candy Bar, 2009, oil on canvas, 48×36 inches)

“It took me a whole lifetime to learn how to draw like a child again.” – Pablo Picasso


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