Writers, artists, poets, don’t worry so much about being original.
I was staying on La Rambla in Central Barcelona when I heard that the Picasso museum was nearby. THE Picasso Museum. So my wife and I got up early and set aside an entire day. And it was worth it.
The Picasso Museum in Barcelona is incredible. It begins with his childhood “works,” which are sketches of birds and other small animals in the margins of his primary readers. It progresses through his more complicated teen drawings, then early paintings, Vasquez obsession, Blue Period, Rose Period, African-Influenced Period, Analytic Cubism, and Synthetic Cubism. The museum is small, but comprehensive and stunning.
But I had one big takeaway: To be original, Picasso had to be derivative. He copied. He imitated. He was cliché. Then — and only then — did his work explode.
The first example of his cliché work were his drawings of classical Greek busts. An art student drawing the chiseled and noble philosophers is as cliché as it gets. But he did it over and over and over.
Then he imitated Velasquez. Actually “imitated” is not a strong enough word. Picasso would copy whole paintings, copy them exactly, brush stroke for brush stroke. My wife and I stood and looked at two paintings side by side — a Velasquez and a Picasso — and noticed that each tiny dot of paint existed on each one, in the exact same place on the painting. Picasso was copying, and in copying, he was learning.
Then, during his Blue Period, Picasso emulated Van Gogh and El Greco. And on and on and on.
The most interesting rooms came later in the museum as we saw a classical renaissance painting imitated by Picasso, then three straight rooms — huge gallery rooms — full of 57 versions of that same painting, the 57 paintings becoming progressively more abstract.
There’s disagreement over whether or not Picasso ever said or repeated the phrase, “Good artists borrow, great ones steal.” Maybe he never said or maybe he never even repeated that phrase. But — either way — he lived it. He worked under that mantra for his whole life. He copied, copied again, copied some more, then worked toward originality. He never worried about being derivative. In fact, he…