“One must have the courage of one’s vocation and the courage to make a living from one’s vocation.”
“Imagine immensities. Pick yourself up from rejection and plow ahead. Don’t compromise,” Debbie Millman advised in her magnificent meditation on what it takes to design a good life. But how does one resist compromising one’s creative ideals when straining to meet the practical essentials of survival? An uncompromising answer comes from one of the greatest creators humanity has ever known.
In 1932, the famed Hungarian photographer Brassaï, nicknamed by Henry Miller “the eye of Paris,” was asked to photograph Picasso’s sculptures, which at the time were practically unknown, for the first issue of the pioneering surrealist art review Minotaure, edited by André Breton. Picasso had just turned fifty. While already an established artist, he was still on the cusp of achieving worldwide acclaim.
But when Brassaï arrived at 23 rue La Boétie and entered Picasso’s studio, he quickly realized that beyond his modest photographic assignment lay a much greater reward — an invitation into Picasso’s private world and the gift of intimate perspective into his singular mind. After each session, Brassaï would return home and carefully record his talks with Picasso on scraps of paper, which he’d then stuff into a giant vase — not with the intent of future publication, but with the intuition that Picasso’s thoughts on life and art would be enormously valuable to posterity. This went on for thirty years, over the course of which the two got to know each other — intellectually, creatively, spiritually — while they explored together such timelessly alluring subjects as the ego, the creative process, the role of romantic infatuation in art, and a universe more.
In 1964, Brassaï — who was as talented a writer as he was a photographer — reached into his vase and decided to make his affectionate records of these dimensional tête-à-têtes public in the remarkable volume Conversations with Picasso (public library).
One of these conversations took place on May 3, 1944. Though Brassaï was by then a successful commercial photographer — the very reputation by which he had entered Picasso’s life — he had dabbled in drawing twenty years prior, and had shown Picasso some of his early art. On that particular spring afternoon, Picasso expressed his admiration for Brassaï’s gift for drawing, insisted that he must have an exhibition, and began probing the photographer about why he had abandoned the pencil. Despite Brassaï’s success as a photographer, Picasso saw the relinquishing of any sort of talent — in this case, drawing — as creative cowardice, as compromising, as selling oneself short of fulfillment. Never one to bite his lip, he gave Brassaï a piece of his mind. While unsolicited, his words ring with timeless advice to all struggling artists on the importance of long-run perseverance and faith in one’s sense of purpose:
When you have something to say, to express, any submission becomes unbearable in the long run. One must have the courage of one’s vocation and the courage to make a living from one’s vocation. The “second career” is an illusion! I was often broke too, and I always resisted any temptation to live any other way than from my painting… In the beginning, I did not sell at a high price, but I sold. My drawings, my canvases went. That’s what counts.
When Brassaï protests that few artists are gifted enough to be successful, citing something Matisse had once told him — “You have to be stronger than your gifts to protect them.” — Picasso counters by bringing down the ivory tower and renouncing the myth that “art suffers the moment other people start paying for it.” Unlike those who maintain that commercial success is the enemy of creative integrity — including such well-meaning idealists as Sherwood Anderson — Picasso was sensitive to the layered, dissonant nature of the issue. He understood the fragility of the creative impulse as a serf of the human ego — an ego that thrives, much to our dismay and inner turmoil, on constant positive reinforcement. He tells Brassaï:
Well, success is an important thing! It’s often been said that an artist ought to work for himself, for the “love of art,” that he ought to have contempt for success. Untrue! An artist needs success. And not only to live off it, but especially to produce his body of work. Even a rich painter has to have success. Few people understand anything about art, and not everyone is sensitive to painting. Most judge the world of art by success. Why, then,leave success to “best-selling painters”? Every generation has its own. But where is it written that success must always go to those who cater to the public’s taste? For myself, I wanted to prove that you can have success in spite of everyone, without compromise. Do you know what? It’s the success I had when I was young that became my wall of protection. The blue period, the rose period, they were screens that shielded me.
Picasso translates this ethos of not compromising from the ideological to the pragmatic as he sends Brassaï off with some practical advice on selling his drawings:
Don’t price them too high. What matters is that you sell a large number of them. Your drawings must go out into the world.
Conversations with Picasso is an absolute treasure in its entirety, the brilliance of which Henry Miller captures in the preface:
In some inexplicable way it seems to me that the spirit which animates Picasso can never be fully accounted for by his work, no matter how prodigious it may be. Not that I deny the greatness of his work, but that the man himself is and will remain far greater than anything or everything which he accomplishes with his hands. He is so much more than the painter, sculptor, or whatever he may choose to be while breathing is in him. He is outsized, a human phenomenon.