Monday, October 23, 2006

What Remains of a Picasso Torn...?

Steve Winn's unfortunate accident (in case you haven't heard, he stuck his elbow through Picasso's Le Reve) led to a slew of articles across the Internet on how to fix a torn masterpiece. One example on Slate typified the slightly mocking tone I read consistently, suggesting the advice on repairing damaged work was merely an editorial gimmick designed to have fun with or extend the story, but it had the fortuitous side effect of reminding me of Genet's stunning essay on the unifying, equalizing force of decay, "What Remains of a Rembrandt Torn Into Four Equal Pieces and Flushed Down the Toilet?" I say fortuitous, because I had been mulling rather morosely over the weekend about the impermanence of art objects (as opposed to at least the potential for immortality of ideas), and revisiting this essay reminded me that, well, my concern was perhaps overdeveloped.

But to clarify what I mean, and what had put me into a funk of sorts, let me spill a bit of the stream of consciousness that was babbling through my brain: visiting the ancient sites of Kyrgyzstan had started it all. So many millennia of conquerors plowing through, uprooting what had been built, just to have their new cities and monuments in turn torn down by the next wave of invaders. And being so close to Afghanistan, where the truly moronic Taliban, a mere blip on the radar of history, if that, had the vile audacity to destroy the Bamiyan Buddha statues, got me to thinking about how we fool ourselves about art. Travelers who like to boast that they've visited Ephesus, or the Parthenon, or the Coliseum, for example, really haven't. They've visited their ruins. Which got me to thinking about how, like a new car leaving the lot, a painting or sculpture essentially begins its inevitable disintegration the very moment the artist finishes it. Visitors to the Sistine Chapel may see a restored version of Michaelangelo's work, but those new, perhaps true (but who knows) colors will fade again, eventually beyond any reasonable restoration. And this made me wonder if I've ever truly seen the colors Rothko was satisfied with in his paintings. I gasp at them now, but what might my response have been the day they were finished, before dust and light and age began changing them?

OK, so I know, this is maudlin, but it got worse when I stopped to think about how literature, on the other hand, can have a much longer, if not eternal, life. From Penguin Classics to Google's digitalization empire designs, ideas in word format can live on and on and on. Sure, there are translation depreciations, but if one is willing to learn an ancient language, one can enjoy the original of works created thousands of years ago in the exact same format their creator made them. OK, so there are cultural references that are lost through time, but it's still much closer to the original than any art or architecture can be after so many years. What an author offers can live on indefinitely. What they see and teach us to see, can be immortal.

But back to Genet. In researching possible connections (i.e., puns) between Winn's accident and France's "sacred monster's" essay, I happened upon an essay by William Haver that quoted this bit of reassuring analysis from Genet's later years:

A little while ago I wrote that though I shall die, nothing else will. And I must make my meaning clear. Wonder at the sight of a cornflower, at a rock, at the touch of a rough hand---all the millions of emotions of which I'm made---they won't disappear even though I shall. Other men will experience them, and they'll still be there because of them. More and more I believe I exist in order to be the terrain and proof which show other men that life consists in the uninterrupted emotions flowing through all creation. The happiness my hand knows in a boy's hair will be known by another hand, is already known. And although I shall die, that happiness will live on. "I" may die, but what made that "I" possible, what made possible the joy of being, will make the joy of being live on without me. (Genet 1992, 314)
And in the end, that's basically all artists teach us through their objects: to wonder at the sight of a cornflower or the touch of a rough hand (i.e., the joy of being). And these lessons won't disappear, even though these paintings or sculptures will. By valuing them now, we do perpetuate them long past their physical ability to exist.

Or something like's early...where's the java?


Anonymous Bnon said...

I love these ideas. But I have one qualification. It seems to me that there is not so great a distinction between books and objects as you say, even though you qualify this yourself toward the end of your essay. I think a work of ideas begins changing the day it is written, just as an object decays. Context changes, the work of literature becomes part of the past, and is, in some ways, dead.

10/23/2006 10:48:00 AM  
Blogger Kate said...

The physicality of work can be distressing for an artist, especially if the work demanded to be made of materials that are fragile. You want lots of people to see it, but the more a work is exhibited, the more knocked around it gets, and it is distressing for the artist to watch.

This actually dovetails into your recent discussion about artists wanting to remain "pure", vs commercial galleries. If an artist has devoted a year to a work of art, and poured their soul into it, the "ideal" would be that it be deemed important enough to go directly to a museum, where it will be cared for and protected while being exhibited. When the work becomes a commodity, and has to go through the various art world channels necessary to get the work seen, it undergoes a lot of wear and tear in the process. This is especially true if the artist is not yet "discovered", and has to ship the work around to get a name for him/herself.

10/23/2006 12:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Tracey Emin got the best answer after the Saatchi fire.

Something like: "it's just art. They are people dying because of wars each day".

Or Chapman said "Ah well, we can just make another one".

Or Giacometti saving his cat instead of his Picasso if his house burns on fire.

The mentality is simple: you sold your work, you were paid for your effort. Who cares what happens afterward? Don't be vain and materialistic, or you obviously haven't risked loosing your life yet.

Art is fluff compared to, say, a travel to the other side of the world with your bf, for example.
These things count way much more.

My advice to artists is to document their work very well (try different cameras and angles, and video), so at least you got that memory if you really want it, and that is probably all you'll always have since you probably sold your work since a long time.

Concentrate on the next art, really.


Cedric Caspesyan

10/23/2006 01:42:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

hmmm...OK, Cedric, I'll bite.

Please answer the question then. What remains of a Picasso torn (implication: so badly it's pointless to restore it)? It can't just be the money paid to Pablo.

10/23/2006 01:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

By the way, of course for Saatchi it was really sad as he lost a good portion of what he amassed (his "work", so to speak).

In the case when a large amount of works is being lost it is quite sad. I may sound like saying one work of art being damaged is no tragedy but I would be the first museum director to make sure the storage rooms are perfectly fireproof(fireproofed??).

There is a difference between Giacometti's house on fire and Alexandria.

Of course if you got a large collection you need to insure it well, but the prospect of loosing collections is very dramatic. I mean, I hope those items looted in Iraq at least were documented in pictures, so we can have the faintest idea of what we are missing.


Cedric Caspesyan

10/23/2006 02:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

What remains is an artefact..


I mean, either you try have it repaired show the artefact with a large print of the original work.

And then we can go on with our lives.

There should be other Picassos, come on. Humanity is able to provide some more Picassos, we're probably not even interested in finding them, autistic and obsessed as we are.

Cedric Caspesyan

10/23/2006 02:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Forget the print !

Ask a chinese to do a replica !

Lol !


10/23/2006 02:10:00 PM  
Blogger kurt said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

10/23/2006 03:23:00 PM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...


A much appreciated post...

I've been thinking about artworks' transience a lot lately, particularly after my recent solo show. A number of potential collectors/buyers expressed concern about the longevity of watercolor/gouache on stretched paper. (I'll leave the specifics aside, although, if protected, stretched watercolor paintings are just as durable as any work on paper.)

I want the work to sell , of course, I'm now experimenting with a more traditional approach: float framing the works under plexi, cut from the stretcher support. This will undoubtedly allow some buyers to sleep better (and maybe me to eat better.) As it turns out, the works look good framed, so all's well that ends well, but the "solution" didn't bother me as much as the concern itself. Art as a long term, multi-generational investment? Sounds like real estate.

After having painted in many different mediums and on many different supports, I settled on watercolor (and other "on paper" mediums) in large part because of the medium's relative temporaility. As you point out, the lifetime of a work of art is not set in stone. Revolution, war, fire, water or elbow can take it out at any given moment...and then, of course, there's "normal wear and tear."

Works of art, then, are a bit like lovers or children - though not as thoroughly delicate, I suppose. If you respond to a work enough to want to live with it, you should enjoy the time you're granted.

It's true that ideas and texts are now more durable - given the growing storage/distribution options - but they, too, will vanish, like so many Mayan stories and, eventually, the human species. When I spend time with a work of art I am moved by, it is an experience and experience is all we have, I guess.

It would be nice if more "fine art" were a shared experience, of course. Anyway...enough rambling. Thanks for the post.

10/23/2006 04:21:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Travelers who like to boast that they've visited Ephesus, or the Parthenon, or the Coliseum, for example, really haven't. They've visited their ruins.

The ruins of the Colosseum are, I think, still the Colosseum. Artworks and buildings have life cycles, much like people. One of the things, I think, that attracts us to ancient ruins is that it reminds us that we, like the Taliban, are just blips on the radar screen of history.

Interesting that this occurred in Las Vegas, which is I guess an example of an empire in its prime. I've never bothered to go there, but maybe if I live long enough I'll go see it as ruins, which will probably be an improvement over its current state. Though of course I'll miss out on Wayne Newton and Celine Dion :)

10/23/2006 05:12:00 PM  
Anonymous kris said...

What remains of the picasso now? Probably a picasso that's worth more than it was originally due to the hype and the story the owner (and future owners) could tell friends. I'd love to see a Rothko right when it was finished- before the solvents had evaporated and the oils dried. But even if I could,I'd never be able to see exactly what Rothko could see- and why would I want to? His paintings give an experience- they still do, and their ability to continue doing this despite their aging is what makes them good. Aren't artists (painter too) really just creating ideas, passing a torch. The painting is the medium, the ideas are what lives- kinda like having kids I suppose, though I don't have any. You can't have any idea what they'll end up doing. Now the torn Picasso provides a humorous story and an experience of seeing a torn picasso. Yea.

10/23/2006 05:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

If you scan your watercolors with a scan that is able to respects the colors, well...maybe you are loosing the original gesture and the subtleties of matter, but you can get a digital version of your watercolor that will last, and like ...I forgot which grand cineast told, but he said.."I prefer someone that sees La Grande Illusion by Renoir on a cheap home recorded VHS than someone who has never seen it at all", as he was responding in interview of the lost quality from original 35mm cinema prints to home medias.

Does anyone here own a Picasso anyway? No, we depend on books to see them, for the most part. That is how art is liberalized in a sense, and made available to the public.

And by the way I always like to think that if the Colosseum was so great, than nothing beholds anyone from building it again. Why do people just always stand and cry?
Rebuilt the darn thing if you like it so much.


Cedric Caspesyan

10/23/2006 06:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

I am pretty sure now it was Bertrand Tavernier whom I quote.

And I did mean "scanner", "rebuild", etc..

Read between the typos, ;-)


10/23/2006 06:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

You know the Prazky Hrad may look utterly boring from the outside, but at least it is still in use (a portion for government suite, the rest as a series of museums), and when you visit inside you are able to see how much of history it has crossed, including magnificent medieval ballroom that you can dervish dance to.

And what did we do to the Karluv Most (the bridge)? Well, hell, some of the statues were crumblig so we kept them in safe and provided replicate (molded from the original).

So there, all sculptures actually are from different stages and periods (some still original), but who cares? It is still in function and it still looks ravishing when everybody else in Europa cry the lost of their architectural standouts.

Just - Rebuild - Them.

Cedric Caspesyan

10/23/2006 07:19:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

And by the way I always like to think that if the Colosseum was so great, than nothing beholds anyone from building it again. Why do people just always stand and cry?
Rebuilt the darn thing if you like it so much.

My understanding is that the building part is easy. There's some problem about the lions.

10/23/2006 07:36:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said... point seems to have been lost via my examples.

Let's try again.

No one's crying, per se, as much as seeking the meaning of the decay. And more than that, seeking the meaning of the experience of work past its prime (which often means very shortly after the artist finishes it). There's a research project in their somewhere. What's the half-life of work and what makes it longer for some work than others, such that we can get a much bigger emotional punch from faded frescoes of Giotto than we do the relatively fresh canvases of (insert your favorite 20th Century also-ran here).

Bnon had a good point about this being more a problem of literature than I acknowledged. Context fades as quickly (or more so) than color sometimes. I think of British contemporary drama circa 1964. Very few of those plays hold up today, because they were so very much of their time. Think Orton, Pinter, etc. They're still brilliant, but so dated. Something like Lysistrata holds up better, for Pete's sake.

And maybe that's the key. Artistophane's comedy addresses a universal issue in universal terms, not some fashionable twist of a very focussed, often autobiographical complaint.

I'm going somewhere with this, you know....

10/23/2006 07:54:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Anyone up for a reading of Shelley's Ozymandias?

And on the pedestal these words appear --
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains.

10/23/2006 10:01:00 PM  
Blogger marseye said...

How precious is this breath?
Our moment, our time, and could it be so if there were no decay?
If we only focus on material or matter, might it separate our imagination from flight and dissolve in that space and time, losing the mystery of evolution.
In decay, the lesson might be transformation, not only of matter but the mind, as these "things" decay we feel there unique touch and reach to hold that call of beauty, a fresh triumph, a new life, memories only in our minds eye and heart.
Maybe Edward, it isn't enough to preserve the matter, but connect our mind in touch with our heart and soul. Ultimately the real miracles are invisible. The experiences you explore in words and tender wisdom, now, or past prime... this is the essence that rises from decay and remains shinning. Thankyou and yours.

10/23/2006 10:43:00 PM  
Blogger Kate said...

Paintings become fragile over time. Many of the works we see on museum walls have been "treated" at one time or another. I have a friend who is a high-end art conservator and we once walked through a museum, and he pointed out piece after piece that he had treated... many of them had large rips that had been repaired. This is a part of the art market that tries to keep a very low profile, for obvious reasons, but you would be amazed.

"The meaning of the decay?" Maybe because people have been taught that Picasso is one of the greatest artists of all time, and he seems like a recent figure, a contemporary, compared to, say, the great Renaissance painters, we feel this loss more acutely... a reminder that we are all disintegrating.

As an artist, I imagine if Giotto were still alive, he would be mortified at what his paintings had become, and wonder how we could be going on about a work that is a mere shadow of its original self.

Color, nuances of line or brushstroke can fade or completely disappear, but it is really about the experience of standing in front of the work in its current state (or a reproduction, as I have been "captured" or mesmerized by something in a reproduction before) at a particular moment in YOUR life, and having the work speak to you. Some aspect of the work touches you, connecting to your mind and/or emotions. Sometimes it is a fleeting connection, and you see the work ten years later and wonder what you were so excited about, but sometimes you remain engaged over a lifetime. The artwork (or the reproduction) that engages the most people for longest period of time is considered "great". When some of the subtleties fade or disappear, we will still strain our eyes to see the shadow of what made the work important.

Academics help us understand the art historical significance, lending further value to the work, then we look at it for different reasons. If pointillist paintings were fugitive and lost all their color, they would still have significance, but we would study reproductions to understand why they were significant, because we would not be able to "get it" from looking at the original.

Finally, let's not forget about about how performance art and conceptual art changed our ideas about the art object, and the importance of documenting the moment that the art "peaked".

They say that if you love someone and they are 70, you often still see them as they were when they were 20 and you first met them and fell in love with them. Maybe part of the painting's significance is only what we carry around in our brains/hearts?

10/24/2006 09:34:00 AM  
Blogger paulraphael said...

Just a couple of quick thoughts ...

I don't think this dichotomy between "works of ideas" (that change because the cultural context changes) and visual works (that change because they decay) is quite accurate.

Visual works are equally succeptible to changes of cultural context. When we look at a rennaissance painting, we're suffering our wildly changed grasp of visual and cultural language, in addition to the visual makeover that time has inflicted on the pigments.

Here's a different question: I've noticed that my fellow photographers are obsessed with archival permanence. Broadly speaking, we're using the new medium on the block, and maybe because of this we freak out about these issues more than anyone else. Photographers using the newest and least proven materials (color processes, inkjet, etc). obsess the most.

Are other artists nearly as concerned about these issues? Do collectors/curators/dealers care all that much about it, or is this just the fussiness of some artists who need to get more fresh air?

10/24/2006 10:42:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...


Is it our perception that constantly decays conceptually against the context of an art piece (because of cultural shifts), or is the artwork that decays when confronted with how cultural perception evolved? This brings back the old post about the found cavern symbol and its forgotten purpose or meaning. We talked about these issues in there.

It's funny that literature here has been described as the lasting medium when one of the first artwork that ever warned about cultural entropy was La Biblioteca De Babel by Jorge Luis Borges.
Or am I mistaking? Isn't it in that story that a universe crumbles down because they are two many books?

We still have greek sculptures and the Pyramids, but where are those damn Alexandria palimpsests ?

Cedric Caspesyan

10/24/2006 10:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

too many books, dammit


10/24/2006 10:46:00 PM  
Blogger paulraphael said...

In that story, the universe IS too many books. Or specifically ... every possible book combining every imaginable combination of letters.

Which might be exactly the right number of books. Depends on your point of view.

10/25/2006 10:21:00 AM  

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