“Why not try to understand the song of a bird? People who try to explain pictures are usually barking up the wrong tree.” — Pablo Picasso
El Santo, painted in 1919 by Marsden Hartley (1877 – 1943), drew me in the first time I saw it at the New Mexico Museum of Art … I kept returning to it, and had to sneak one last look before leaving the gallery.
Back to the exhibition twice more, and El Santo each time had the same effect. A fellow art geek and I have discussed it at length … and frankly, I still don’t know exactly what it is about it that makes it so vivid for me.
Picasso would have said I should stop trying to explain it and just enjoy the experience of it. “Everyone wants to understand art,” he said. “Why not try to understand the song of a bird? Why does one love the night, flowers, everything around one, without trying to understand them? … People who try to explain pictures are usually barking up the wrong tree.”
But there’s a difference between the natural song of a bird and the human hand and mind involved in creating art. Why did Hartley arrange this still life as he did, choose that textile and that color palette? Why is the painting-within-the-painting tilted? Did it happen to be on the wall that way, and he simply liked the effect? Or did the artist cause it to tilt, thinking to strengthen the composition?
I accept Picasso’s statement that “an artist works of necessity”, but I know too many intelligent, skilled, highly-trained artists to accept that their creative process flows without thought. Subconscious, yes. Thoughtless, no. And it is the artist’s thought process that intrigues me. I like the “wonder” of it.