Each time I see a new book published by Barcelona-based Elba, I have the impression that every new title is more indispensable than the last. Last year I wrote a text about a book of selected correspondence by Marcel Duchamp, also published by Elba. It belonged to a series of books dedicated to artists, which, due to their size, are ideal for reading comfortably during the course of one day.
The book I’ve just finished reading (published last November) is part of that same series, and collects various small essays by David Sylvester (London, 1924-2001) on Picasso. Why I picked up a book dealing with the artist on who so much has been written was probably due to the extreme simplicity of the design, with no full-colour images of famous paintings. The cover is all light blue, with nothing to distract the attention from theme or author. I had read Sylvester’s celebrated interviews with Francis Bacon, and now he has been revealed to me as one of those art historians who one would like to be like. Despite being a translation –I think the translator, José Moreno, has done a good job– these texts distil the knowledge without pretentious jargon that is characteristic of the art writers I most admire.
Throughout the four texts that make up the book, Sylvester discusses different aspects of Picasso’s immense figure. He begins with a review of the retrospective celebrated at the Tate Gallery in 1960. He uses the exhibition as a pretext for discussing how the period of Analytic Cubism was an exceptional moment in Picasso’s career. We usually associate Picasso with an art of great vitality and virtuosity, a man who seemed to paint as easily as he breathed. That’s why Analytic Cubism –the intellectual art par excellence– seems to be a sort of island in the midst of the torrent of spontaneous creativity that is the rest of his oeuvre. We are reminded of this again in another text where Sylvester compares the work of Picasso with that of Marcel Duchamp, possibly modern art’s two opposing poles. If the Frenchman’s aseptic nature was something completely alien to Picasso, the truth is that he himself participated of that nature during his brief analytic period.
Another characteristic discussed by Sylvester is the energy with which Picasso created, developed and ended his artistic periods. The normal thing to see in an artist is a more or less natural progression, a succession of corrections. In Picasso’s case, Sylvester points out, such a progression doesn’t exist, but rather his different periods are born, develop and die in themselves. In contrast to, say, his admired rival Matisse, each new period in Picasso is not a transformation of the previous one, but its denial.
But what is maybe most striking about Picasso is his capacity to eclipse everything other than himself. It’s not because there are no painters of his same stature, which there are. But one can end up forgetting that Picasso received foreign stimuli, that Cubism was probably first posed by Braque, that he learned things from Matisse or that he wa in debt to the masters of the past. Sylvester himself says to be amazed and happy whilst visiting the 1960 exhibition, but after seeing a pair of great paintings by Bonnard and Matisse he remembers how there is life outside Picasso: “Under Picasso’s spell, one had supposed that modern painting could not go any further,” he says. More than a particular work, more than any of his inventions, this spell may well be Pablo Picasso’s greatest legacy.