Thursday, January 01, 2009

Constraints and freedom

One of my favorite Picasso pieces is to be found in the Guggenheim museum in New York. My encounter took place almost a decade and half ago. Still the impressions are vividly with me.

Lobster and Cat (Le Homard et le chat), January 11, 1965. Oil on canvas, 28 3/4 x 36 1/4 inches (73 x 92 cm). Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Thannhauser Collection, Bequest, Hilde Thannhauser, 91.3916. © 2007 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Marked by rough touches of the brush, the work leaves parts of the white canvas unpainted. Even so, the lines are simply divine. It is said that Picasso's father, himself an accomplished painter, gave up teaching his son how to paint as there was nothing more left to teach. "Le Homard et le chat" is a testimony of the spiritual "freedom" that the painter attained at the ripe age of 84.
The visit to the Picasso museum in Paris some years after the Guggenheim experience further inspired me with the depth of "freedom" that Pablo Picasso came to enjoy in his career. As is well known, the master left an enormous number of works behind. The more familiar Picassos are "market friendly", filtered by the desires of the public. His paintings would fetch astronomical prices. Specimens of earthenware painted by Picasso are very tradable. The popular Picassos are now everyday icons in the art world and beyond.
However, some of the pieces that I've witnessed in the Picasso Museum were clearly not "marketable". There was a real Small White (Pieris rapae) butterfly sticked on a cardboard. Sculptures were constructed out of iron trash the painter scavenged while walking around his Paris domicile. These works were clearly not done for commercial purposes. The painter was simply pursuing the pleasure of expression. Even with the name of Picasso, it is not apparent if these items would sell well in the market. But apparently, the artist could not care less.
Pieces found in the Paris museum are those with which the great master did not part until his death. Wandering among those precious pieces filled one with foods for thoughts. What is the nature of "freedom" that Picasso tried to embody with his works all his life? One of the founders of cubism, Picasso continued to search for new venues of expression. We are dazzled by the changes in his style. When the mist clears above the great sea of changing tides, what remained invariant all his life must be sought for and grasped.
Contemporary brain sciences tell us that freedom is not chaos. Being free is not equal to "laissez-faire". There is a silver lining of internal discipline in every cloud of freedom. The "Le Homard et le chat" painting that I admired in the Guggenheim museum was constituted of lines that simply had to be. Finding inner constraints to follow could inspire one to be free from the trivialities of conventions.
One can be free while being constrained by invisible rules of aesthetics. The paradoxical co-existence of constraint and freedom is the origin of consciousness, and the raison d'ĂȘtre for all artistic endeavors.
When I saw the Guernica, Picasso's Opus magnum in Madrid, I was reminded of the plume of passion within the artist. On hearing the news of atrocity inflicted on innocent townspeople during the Spanish Civil War, the artist finished the masterpiece in a short time, fuelled by rage. The piece, although political in its conception, is rather tranquil in its impression of beauty. One is rather reminded of the paintings in Lascaux and Altamira, in terms of the great continuity of quality and perception.
Picasso's works seem to be the fruits of an all-out freedom, but actually follow a strict ethos of the senses natural to the artist.
A secret that would ultimately bless every moment of our earthly lives is hidden in the paradox of being sublimely free and hopelessly bound at the same time. In search of the answer, I sometimes find myself in front of a Picasso painting.
Why is it that for the human spirit the arts are indispensable?
Why does man not live by bread alone?
At such occasions, I sometimes feel ever so close to the truth hidden from the very beginning of human history.

("Constraints and Freedom" by Ken Mogi. Translated from Japanese by the author. The original article will appear in the "Masters of Western Paintings" series, a weekly magazine to published by Shogakukan, Tokyo in 2009)


Oliver said...

Constraints are very important. Isn't the study of mathematics centered around constraints, objects that have very specific properties. Only then can we derive the implications.

About what is essential in art: I am unfortunately not familiar with a lot of visual art, but a favorite author of mine showed there are strong analogues in fiction writing.

Borges on Writing is a transcript of a lecture given by Jorge Luis Borges to aspiring writers, poets, and translators. It is an attempt to bring the audience behind the scene into Borges' process of composition. In the section devoted to the short story, one of Borges' yet-unpublished works was read, as Borges interrupted to remark on pieces of the story.

What amazed me is that Borges had something to say about almost every sentence. He could talk at length about why he crafted a particular string of words, why they even exist. I always understood that good writing uses language to the fullest. Yet it struck me then that informationally dense is what best describes the words of a master artisan.

Later, he made a remark (a paraphrase of another writer, but alas, I've returned the book to the library and cannot recall) that went something like this: Every narrative is necessarily an abstraction.

Of course he is talking about writing, but I think this is a statement about experience as well—the stories we tell ourselves. I find myself at a loss to verbalize it, but I see connection to your previous observation that our entire human lives take place within the brain.

Ken Mogi said...

Dear, Oliver.

Thank you for your interesting comments.
The greatest freedom for the mankind might reside in the joy of discovering new constraints. If we regard constraints as something to be dynamically explored, rather than a given static, then we can be enjoy freedom while being constrained!

Anonymous said...

"Why does man not live by bread alone? " - Does it not occur to you that the answer to this question is simply not possible to find if you go on thinking that
"At the end of the day, what we feel and think are nothing more than the results of the neural firings in the brain."?