Does Your Art Share Joy?

April 21, 2021

Last Saturday, I finally got the chance to see the Picasso: Figures exhibit I’ve been hyping in the “Must-See Exhibits” section of this newsletter. The family and I ventured down to Nashville to visit the Frist Museum, which – if you’ve never been, I’d highly recommend. It’s not a huge museum, and in some ways that can be a good thing. I know when I visit some of the larger museums in our region I get exhausted because there’s just so much to see and I always want to cram as much art into my eyeballs as possible during the limited time I’m there. For me, looking at art is a very involved process and I usually end up leaving the museum quite inspired, but also in need of a nap.

But not this time! Picasso’s exhibit filled me with so much enthusiasm, energy, and joie de vivre that I felt I couldn’t get back to my sketchbook soon enough. I had to stop and think about why I felt that way, and I came to the realization that I enjoyed seeing the art so much because Picasso enjoyed making the art so much. This epiphany also made me consider – does my art share joy? Can I capture my own enthusiasm for creation so well that it becomes contagious – to the point that it overspills and makes others feel the same way? What did Picasso do that had that effect on me and the others seeing this work in person for the first time?

Before I get into my theories on how we can share Picasso’s joy, let me give a little insight to how this exhibit was laid out, and also what it’s like seeing a blockbuster exhibition this within the restrictions of a viral pandemic. This show is a pretty big deal. The exhibition in Nashville is the only stop that Picasso: Figures is making in the United States before it travels on to other destinations around the world. Museum staff shared with us that people were traveling from all over the US just to get a peek at the show. To see the show, you must have a ticketed appointment due to Coronavirus restrictions. Unfortunately, the exhibit’s appointments are all SOLD OUT until it wraps up on May 9.
Seeing an art show in a pandemic is kind of … odd. Rather than just making your way around the room at a leisurely pace, looking at the works you want in the order you want, viewers now stand in kind of a snaking conga line around the room – standing six feet apart. It’s hard to spend the time you’d like to really soak up a painting because there’s a bit more pressure from the people behind you. No one was rude, but I did feel a bit rushed to keep moving. 

The show begins with an early Picasso painting, which he did at the age of 13 (ironically the most “realistic” of the pieces in the show) and ends with what many consider to be his last painting – finished just a year before his death. Throughout the exhibit, I was taken aback by just how many pieces there were.  The sheer number of paintings was astonishing. Picasso will be remembered as one of the world’s most prolific artists, and estimates of the total number of artworks he created during his lifetime most often reach 50,000.  

The Figures exhibit covers a lot of his later more colorful, expressive post-cubist works- which is a good thing.  My wife commented on the way to the museum, “I hope they have some good Picassos and not those ugly brown and grey ones like we see in most other museums.”  And I had to agree.  Picasso probably did most of the heavy lifting of his cubism style and idea development during that “ugly brown and grey” period – but those paintings are not much fun to look at.   This show had a few ugly brown ones, but only a few.  Almost all of his different periods were represented, but there was quite a gap in his early rose and blue periods.  Even a handful of sculptures made their way into the exhibit.  Some of the paintings were absolutely incredible, and some were very close to being awful.  

When you’ve created 50,000 artworks, they can’t all be killer!  

Most of the canvases were quite large and one jealous thought that I had was, “Wow- I wish I could paint this spontaneously, quickly, and dare I say it- ‘sloppy’ on such a big beautiful scale.”   It was easy to see that Picasso was an absolute force of nature- working, growing, creating, progressing, then (purposefully) regressing over almost all of his 91 years.  He truly was in constant forward motion by traveling backwards.  He dedicated a good portion of his life trying to paint with the abandon of a child, and every piece in the exhibit seemed to squeal with the same sense of pride that a kid who just got his latest doodle put on the family refrigerator. 

It was that joy that I found captivating and refreshing. You could tell that he was having the time of his life on every piece. He didn’t care what critics thought – he was just blasting out painting after painting and loving every minute of being Picasso.  All too often in the studio, I get too into the “work” side of artwork – tending to overthink things and taking too long to get a piece over the finish line. If things come too easily, sometimes I find myself thinking, “this should be harder, what am I forgetting?” I can have a tendency to forget the joy of creativity. 

If you’re anything like me, making things makes you happy. I get in the zone, the flow, and time completely melts away. Hours pass without me even noticing. Sometimes, I get flustered or frustrated and expect too much of myself. I get self-critical and the gears grind to a halt.  For some reason, I can never imagine Picasso ever getting “stuck” – I think he’d just move right onto the next piece laughing all the way, never acknowledging any failure or mistakes.  I often wonder if successful, rock-star level artists are as prolific as they are because they have to be to keep up with demands, or if they are rock-star level artists because they are so prolific.

It’s a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg scenario – are they making it because they’ve “made it” or have they “made it” because they’re making it? With Picasso, I’d have to say that it’s two heaping spoonfuls of both. He obviously had the creative drive from a young age and was appreciated and celebrated as a top-level artist for most of his life, but he surely never would have reached such heights if he hadn’t been putting in the work. From an outsider’s standpoint looking in, it’s easy to think, “sure he made tons of work – he’s Picasso!,” without realizing that he wasn’t born a legendary artist, he became one. He got to the level he attained because he enjoyed the journey.

So, reflect a bit on your own work. Does your work share joy? Even if your work/themes are on a darker or heavier topic (I understand that not all art comes from a place of joy), can others see that you created this work out of love, out of sharing, and out of the joy of you being you? If you find yourself growing more frustrated and self-critical or that your goals are too distant, just take a moment and think, what would Picasso do? He would smile, wink, and say, “I got this… I’m Picasso!”