Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Pablo Picasso’

22 JULY, 2014

The Science of Dust, Picasso’s Favorite Phenomenon

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“With every breath, we inhale a bit of the story of our universe, our planet’s past and future…”

It takes more than three centuries for a one-foot layer of dust to accumulate. The entirety of the Roman Empire is buried nine feet underground — that is, under nine feet of tightly compacted dust. This household nuisance is indeed one of nature’s most humbling phenomena and Earth’s most steadfast preserver. Picasso was fascinated by it. In a passage from Hungarian photographer Brassaï’s 1964 gem Conversations with Picasso (public library) — which also gave us the iconic artist on success and not compromising and intuition and where ideas come from — Picasso marvels the news of an excavation in which archeologists preserved a cross-section more than ten feet high, containing multiple layers built over the millennia. When Brassaï notes how moving it is that “in a glance, you can take in thousands of years of history,” Picasso responds enthusiastically:

And you know what’s responsible? It’s dust! The earth doesn’t have a housekeeper to do the dusting. And the dust that falls on it every day remains there. Everything that’s come down to us from the past has been conserved by dust. Right here, look at these piles, in a few weeks a thick layer of dust has formed. On rue La Boétie, in some of my rooms … my things were already beginning to disappear, buried in dust. You know what? I always forbade everyone to clean my studios, dust them, not only for fear they would disturb my things, but especially because I always counted on the protection of dust. It’s my ally. I always let it settle where it likes. It’s like a layer of protection. When there’s dust missing here or there, it’s because someone has touched my things. I see immediately someone has been there. And it’s because I live constantly with dust, in dust, that I prefer to wear gray suits, the only color on which it leaves no trace.

Portrait of Picasso, in one of his gray dust-proof suits, by Brassaï

So what is dust, really? And what makes it so special? Count on Joe Hanson to put some science behind the legendary artist’s muse:

We’re constantly moving dust from one place to another, only to have it replaced by more dust — entropy always wins.

[…]

A piece of space-dust falls on your head once every day… With every breath, we inhale a bit of the story of our universe, our planet’s past and future, the smells and stories of the world around us, even the seeds of life.

Lest we forget, as Carl Sagan memorably put it, we are but “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

For more of Hanson’s illuminating science videos, see the science of why we kiss, why there was no first human, the mathematical odds of finding your soulmate, the universe in a glass of wine, and why sci-fi writers are so good at predicting the future.

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24 JUNE, 2014

Picasso on Intuition, How Creativity Works, and Where Ideas Come From

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“To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing.”

“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work,” painter Chuck Close memorably scoffed. “Show up, show up, show up,” novelist Isabelle Allende echoed in her advice to aspiring writers, “and after a while the muse shows up, too.” Legendary composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky put it similarly in an 1878 letter to his benefactress: “A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.” Indeed, this notion that creativity and fruitful ideas come not from the passive resignation to a muse but from the active application of work ethic — or discipline, something the late and great Massimo Vignelli advocated for as the engine of creative work — is something legions of creative luminaries have articulated over the ages, alongside the parallel inquiry of where ideas come from. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most succinct and elegant articulation comes from one of the greatest artists of all time.

Picasso having lunch at the Brasserie Lipp, chatting with Pierre Matisse, Henri Matisse's son. Photograph by Brassaï.

This was one of the questions the famed Hungarian photographer Brassaï posed to Pablo Picasso over the course of their 30-year-long interview series, collected in Conversations with Picasso (public library) — the same superb 1964 volume that gave us Picasso on success and why you should never compromise creatively. When Brassaï asks whether the painter’s ideas come to him “by chance or by design,” Picasso slips in some sidewise wisdom on the tyranny of “creative block” and responds:

I don’t have a clue. Ideas are simply starting points. I can rarely set them down as they come to my mind. As soon as I start to work, others well up in my pen. To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing… When I find myself facing a blank page, that’s always going through my head. What I capture in spite of myself interests me more than my own ideas.

The chalk portrait of Picasso that Henri Matisse drew blindfolded. Photograph by Brassaï.

To further illustrate this notion that the best creative work happens when the rational, self-editing mind gets out of the way of the intuitive inclination — something Ray Bradbury articulated beautifully in a 1974 interview — Picasso offers an illustrative example. Despite being both a professional admirer and a personal friend of Matisse’s, he cites the painter’s notoriously methodical creative process as a betrayal of this notion that an artist should honor his or her initial creative intuition:

Matisse does a drawing, then he recopies it. He recopies it five times, ten times, each time with cleaner lines. He is persuaded that the last one, the most spare, is the best, the purest, the definitive one; and yet, usually it’s the first. When it comes to drawing, nothing is better than the first sketch.

Making Picasso's point visible: In 2010, MoMA curators used X-ray technology to reveal the many iterations behind Henri Matisse's painting 'Bathers by a River,' on which the painter worked for eight years between 1909 and 1917.

Conversations with Picasso is an enormously rewarding read in its entirety. Complement this particular extract with a five-step “technique for producing ideas” from 1939, then revisit David Lynch on where ideas come from and some thoughts on the subject from Neil Gaiman.

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08 MAY, 2014

The Modern Art Cookbook: Recipes and Food-Inspired Treasures from the Twentieth Century’s Greatest Creative Icons

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Picasso’s sangria, Emily Dickinson’s gingerbread, Frida Kahlo’s red snapper, and other delectable delights from beloved artists and writers.

As a lover of unusual cookbooks — especially those at the intersection of literature, art, and cuisine, from the Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook to Salvador Dalí’s erotic gastronomy to Andy Warhol’s little-known illustrated recipes to Dinah Fried’s magnificent photographs of meals from famous fiction — I was instantly enthralled by The Modern Art Cookbook (public library). Art historian, literature scholar and professor Mary Ann Caws constructs an “amalgam of literary passages, recipes, still-lifes, photographs and film frames” related to food, featuring contributions from such icons of modern art and modernist literature as Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Man Ray, Andy Warhol, Ernest Hemingway, Emily Dickinson, and Vincent van Gogh. Eleven chapters explore different courses and gastronomical categories — appetizers, soup, eggs, fish, meat, vegetables, sides, bread and cheese, fruit, desserts, and beverages — treating each as a distinct genre.

In spirit and sensibility, the project is the culinary counterpart to Literary Jukebox, pairing great literature and art with recipes and other food-related meditations.

Here is but a small sample taste to whet the appetite.

Maira Kalman, 'Herring and Philosophy Club,' 2006

In between painting and pondering the poetics of love, Vincent van Gogh tried his hand at cooking:

Vincent van Gogh’s
CARAMELIZED ONIONS

¾ pound (340g) pearl onions
1 ¼ teaspoons sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
Pinch of fine sea salt

Bring a small pot of water to a boil and add the onions. Simmer for 1 minute, then transfer to a colander to cool. Trim the root and stem ends and peel the onions. Place the onions in a pan large enough to hold them in one layer, add enough water to barely cover. Sprinkle with the sugar and the butter.

Cut a round of parchment paper to fit in the pan so that it snugly covers the onions. Cut a hole in the centre to allow steam to escape. Cook over a medium heat until the onions have caramelized, 25 to 30 minutes, adding a little water if the pan seems dry. Season with a pinch of fine sea salt.

Andy Warhol, 'Five Views of an Onion,' 1950s

Modernist cuisine godmother Alice B. Toklas is, of course, a prominent presence in the book. In addition to having pioneered French cuisine outside France in her influential memoir-disguised-as-a-cookbook, being the love of Gertrude Stein’s life also gave her a unique perspective on the Parisian modernist expat community as she hosted Stein’s famous salons, attended by such luminaries as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, René Crevel, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso.

Alice B. Toklas’s
BASS FOR PICASSO

One day when Picasso was to lunch with us I decorated a fish in a way that I thought would amuse him. I chose a fine striped bass and cooked it according to a theory of my grandmother who had no experience in cooking and who rarely saw her kitchen but who had endless theories about cooking as well as about many other things. She contended that a fish having lived its life in water, once caught, should have no further contact with the element in which it had been born and raised. She recommended that it be roasted or poached in wine or cream or butter. So I made a court-bouillon of dry white wine with whole peppers, salt, a laurel leaf,* a sprig of thyme, a blade of mace, an onion with a clove stuck in it, a carrot, a leek and a bouquet of fines herbes. This was gently boiled in the fish-kettle for ½ hour and then put aside to cool. Then the fish was placed on the rack, the fish-kettle covered and slowly brought to a boil and the fish poached for 20 minutes. Taken from the fire it was left to cool in the court-bouillon. It was then carefully drained, dried and placed on the fish platter. A short time before serving it I covered the fish with an ordinary mayonnaise and, using a pastry tube, decorated it with a red mayonnaise, not colored with catsup — horror of horrors — but with tomato paste. Then I made a design with sieved hard-boiled eggs, the whites and the yolks apart, with truffles and with finely chopped fines herbes. I was proud of my chef d’oeuvre when it was served and Picasso exclaimed at its beauty. But, said he, should it not rather have been made in honor of Matisse than of me.

*Note: The leaf must come from Apollo’s laurel (Laurus nobilius), better known outside France as the bay.

Pablo Picasso, 'Le Gourmet,' 1901

Picasso himself, who seems to have felt about his palate as strongly as he did about his art, makes several culinary cameos in the book.

Pablo Picasso’s
HERB SOUP

2 bunches radishes
2 handfuls chervil
1 bunch sorrel
2 cloves garlic
2 soupspoons olive oil
1 egg yolk
6 slices toast (optional)
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Remove the green from the radishes and wash them with the chervil and the sorrel leaves, draining off the liquid. Put the radishes aside to serve them with salt later. After having reserved 20 chervil stalks, chop finely all the greens. Peel the garlic cloves.

Heat the oil over very slow heat in a stewing pan to reduce the garlic cloves, and then the greens, stirring with a wooden spoon. Add 2.5 liters of water, salt and pepper. Let it simmer uncovered for 35 minutes. Taste the soup, season if necessary, and pour in a mixer, then put it through a sieve.

In the soup tureen, beat the egg yolk and pour over it the soup, still beating, Scatter the chervil over it, and serve with the toast.

Despite once stating that Dalí “has had the monopoly on eggs ever since Christopher Columbus” (which he did), Picasso didn’t shy away from the culinary genre himself:

Pablo Picasso’s
SPANISH OMELETTE
(Omelette à L’Espagnole)

4 potatoes
2 onions
6 soupspoons olive oil
10 eggs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Peel the potatoes, wash them, cut them in slices and dry them carefully. Peel the onions, chop them perpendicular to the bulb, and heat over a gentle flame with half the oil in a large saucepan until they are slightly golden. Add the potatoes and cook for 15 minutes, stirring often.

While they are cooking,break the eggs into a large salad bowl and beat them until they are foamy. Take the potatoes and onions from the pan and drain them on a piece of paper to absorb the moisture. Toss them in the salad bowl, salt and pepper them, and mix it all together.

Heat the rest of the oil in the pan, and pour in the mixture from the salad bowl. Let it cook over a medium flame until the bottom of the omelette takes and is golden. Turn the omelette over to cook it on the other side, keeping the inside runny. Serve it with potatoes, hot or cold, cut into cubes.

William Scott, 'Bowl, Eggs and Lemons,' 1950

Among the recipes are also beautiful gastronomically infused passages from the public and private writings — from novels to diaries — of beloved authors, such as this succulent section of A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemingway:

As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.

And what’s a modernist volume without some Ezra Pound, who manages to violate his own don’ts of poetry in this delightful verse?

STATEMENT OF BEING

I am a grave poetic hen
That lays poetic eggs
And to enhance my temperament
A little quiet begs.

We make the yolk philosophy,
True beauty the albumen
And then gum on a shell of form
To make the screed sound human.

When Frida Kahlo wasn’t busy handwriting passionate love letters to Diego Rivera, contemplating political philosophy, or cooking up DIY paint recipes, she turned her formidable creative talent to the kitchen:

Frida Kahlo’s
RED SNAPPER, VERACRUZ STYLE

1 red snapper, about 4½ pounds (2 kg)
Salt and pepper
6 medium tomatoes, sliced
20 pimento-stuffed olives
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
1 tablespoon dried oregano
5 bay leaves
3 thyme sprigs
5 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
2 large onions, thinly sliced
8 red chillies (recipe calls for guero chillies, picked or fresh, but adapt it as you find suitable)
1 cup (235 ml) olive oil

Dry the fish thoroughly. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and arrange on a large baking dish.

Top with tomato slices, olives, capers, oregano, bay leaves, thyme, garlic, onions and chillies. Drizzle with the olive oil.

Bake in a preheated 375ºF (180ºC) oven for about 40 minutes, or until the fish is cooked, basting the fish with its juices 3 times during cooking.

Georges Braque, 'The Black Fish,' 1942

Georgia O’Keeffe’s
WILD ASPARAGUS

1 bunch (around 12 ounces / 350g) wild or cultivated asparagus
Butter or oil, to taste or for sautéeing
Herb salt and freshly ground pepper

Wash the asparagus carefully to remove all fine sand. Cut the woody part of the stem off, keeping the asparagus in long pieces. This tender, young asparagus can be steamed or sautéed

Edouard Manet, 'Bunch of Asparagus,' 1880

Man Ray’s
POTLAGEL
(ROMANIAN-STYLE EGGPLANT SPREAD)

Serves 4
2 large eggplants (aubergines)
½ medium onion
5 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
French bread, rye bread or Russian black bread

Wash the eggplants and pierce them with a knife. Place them in a microwave and cook for 8-9 minutes (for best results cook on a barbecue).

Place the cooked eggplants in a bowl and cool for several minutes, then split them lengthwise and scrape out the pulp with a large spoon. Put the pulp in a small blender or grinder, along with the onion, garlic and olive oil, salt and pepper to taste. Pulse, do not purée.

Chill the mixture in the refrigerator. This makes a great spread on French baguettes, sliced rye, or Russian black bread.

Joseph Stella, 'Eggplant,' c. 1939

From Pablo Neruda comes a beautiful ode to the artichoke, translated by Ben Belitt:

The artichoke
of delicate heart
erect
in its battle-dress, builds
its minimal cupola;
keeps
stark
in its scallop of
scales.
Around it,
demoniac vegetables
bristle their thicknesses,
devise
tendrils and belfries,
the bulb’s agitations;
while under the subsoil
the carrot
sleeps sound in its
rusty mustaches.
Runner and filaments
bleach in the vineyards,
whereon rise the vines.
The sedulous cabbage
arranges its petticoats;
oregano
sweetens a world;
and the artichoke
dulcetly there in a gardenplot,
armed for a skirmish,
goes proud
in its pomegranate
burnishes.

Frida Kahlo, 'Fruits of the Earth,' 1938

The penultimate chapter explores desserts — a course cross-pollinated with modern art particularly well. Found among the manuscripts of Susan Gilbert, Emily Dickinson’s closest friend — or, as some have speculated, more-than-friend — was the following recipe in Dickinson’s handwriting:

Emily Dickinson’s
GINGERBREAD

½ cup (115g) butter
½ cup (110 ml) cream
1 quart (560g) flour
1 teaspoon soda
1 tablespoon ginger
1 teaspoon salt
Make up with molasses

Cream the butter and mix with lightly whipped cream. Sift dry ingredients together and combine with other ingredients. The dough is stiff and needs to [be] pressed into whatever pan you choose. A round or small square pan is suitable. The recipe also fits perfectly into a cast iron muffin pan, if you happen to have one which makes oval cakes. Bake at 350ºF (180ºC) for 20-25 minutes.

Joan Miró, 'Bottle of Wine,' 1924

The book closes with a chapter on beverages, among which is this festive treat from Picasso:

Pablo Picasso’s
SANGRIA OF ELS QUATRE GATS

For 8 cups
1 bottle of good red wine
1 cinnamon stick
Zest of 3 oranges
3 cloves
4 soupspoons acacia honey
2 soupspoons cognac

Pour the wine into a pot, add the cinnamon stick and heat over a high flame. As soon as the wine is boiling, add the orange zest and the cloves, and bring again to a boil. Add the honey, the cognac and a little glass of boiling water, and serve very hot in thick wineglasses.

The Modern Art Cookbook is an infinitely delectable delight in its entirety. Complement it with Marinetti’s Futurist Cookbook, Liberace’s little-known recipes, and Dalí’s magnificent Les Diners de Gala.

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