The National Gallery’s exciting new show, Picasso: Challenging the Past, seems, on the face of it, to be about the artist’s relationship with the old masters – the ones he liked and the lessons he learnt from them. More obviously than any of the big hitters of modern art, Picasso was obsessed with his artistic past. He plundered the work of his predecessors: took their subjects, their methods, their viewpoints. And because he was such a compelling and thunderous creator, this battle with his own history makes for fascinating viewing.
However, Picasso versus the past is merely what occurs on the surface of this event. Beneath the surface, something more telling even than Picasso’s enormous debt to his ancestors is being probed. I am thinking here of one of the most pertinent subjects any exhibition can address: the make-up of creativity itself. What is it to create? How is the process validated and invalidated? When is it complete? All such questions are raised and answered by this lively journey.
Among the many myths that have swirled around the overmythologised Picasso is the one of his precocious genius: the suspicion that he was born with spectacular, God-given gifts, and barely needed to try to become a great artist.
Picasso himself put it sexily when he quipped: “By the time I was 14, I could draw like Raphael. It took me a lifetime to learn to draw like a child.” The legend of his genius was one he was keen to spread. The truth, however, was more prosaic, as I found out while making a television life of Picasso with his superb biographer, John Richardson. In fact, Picasso’s earliest drawings are every bit as clunky as you would expect from a preteen artist. A bad Hercules. A shaky Christ. A wonky sister. There have even been suggestions that some creative backdating took place.
My point is not that Picasso was a fraud, but that, even for him, the illusion that geniuses arrive ready-made on earth was an idée fixe. In truth, real creativity has never actually worked that way, and never will. Instead of the big-bang theory of creativity, which sees the making of art as the production of something out of nothing – a quasi-divine act – we are able these days to understand it as a process closer to Darwinian evolution. Someone makes A. Someone else makes B out of A. Then B becomes C, and so on. This envisaging of creativity as a gradual process of borrowing and adaptation is the underlying topic of Picasso: Challenging the Past.
Few subjects in art could be more pertinent. If Picasso were alive today, he would not have been able to have the career he had; and could certainly not have quoted from his own work in the way that he himself quotes from the work of others. The Picasso industry would have stopped him. We live in a world of controlled media access in which copyright issues and their attendant financial implications have become an enormous obstacle to everything this show celebrates. The big-bang myth of creativity, which imagines that art can be thought up from nothing, serves the needs and fantasies of heirs and copyright holders – notably, Picasso’s own image enforcers – but it does not serve the creative process itself.