When the college where I teach closed for spring break, I planned a visit to the Picasso exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, without my family, hoping to enjoy it in peace. The morning began in a fit of fury, first a desperate search for something that started with the letter “V” for show and tell, then a last minute hairdo debacle for a preschool portrait. When I finally made it to Richmond, the VMFA was packed.
Teenagers crowded the halls for my reservation coincided with a high school field trip. Armed with clipboards and questions, they sped past the paintings, leaving behind chaperones. As I stood in front of Picasso’s Celestina, I thought about the quote by Picasso inscribed on the wall of the gallery, which explained his art to be his diary, and I wondered if the adolescents had even noticed it, or if the checklist had blinded them to such finer points.
I’ll be honest with you while I’ve always gotten why Picasso’s work was so revolutionary when I saw paintings like the gorgeous Portrait of Olga in an Armchair I couldn’t help but wonder why he didn’t create work as beautiful as that all the time. But then another quote of Picasso’s helped me understand something I hadn’t before, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael but a lifetime to paint like a child.”
I first studied Picasso during the summer of 1998 for a course I took on Existentialism and the Arts through New York University. The semester abroad occurred in Paris, France so we experienced the Musee National Picasso first hand. While I’m sure this idea of it taking a whole life to learn how to be young was addressed, my suspicion is that, being only in my twenties, it was lost on me.
I watched the high school students breeze past the photography display and thought about my Befriending Forty experiment. Since I turned thirty-nine this past fall, I’ve been chronicling my journey to forty this October, listening to my younger self in an attempt to determine whether happily-ever-after is playing out as I’d planned. But at the VMFA, I wondered if perhaps I hadn’t regressed enough this year. Little Vicki, in all her post-jungle wisdom, was still under the belief that the more you live the more you know. I knew older people would be quick to say the opposite was true, but I began to suspect while looking at Picasso’s art that that wasn’t it either.
Finally, by the glow of my book light later that evening, I realized the real genius in Picasso’s work was his decomposition of self until all that remains are the elements that bind us together – shape, color, and form. It means absolving what is “right” and “popular” until, as Picasso reminds us, “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” I understood it isn’t until every blank canvas or block of clay stops becoming an opportunity to give others what they want and a chance to show what you’ve always known in your heart that you are young, again.
Victoria Winterhalter is a freelance writer, whose blog, Befriending Forty, chronicles what happens when the person you thought you’d be meets the person you actually became. Help her countdown to 40 on her BefriendingForty blog.