I am reading a book about Picasso’s work. It’s in two volumes, paper bound and published by Taschen. I must agree with the blurb that calls it “The definitive introduction to the scope and range of Picasso’s work.” (The Times, London)
I think my first encounter with Picasso came in a round-about way: as a musician in the 1970s, I was a great fan of the series of books written by Robert Craft and generically titled, “Conversations with Stravinsky.” It was in one of those Penguin paperbacks that I learned of the incredible era of collaborative creativity that transpired in Paris during the first quarter of the 1900s. It was then that Picasso, Stravinsky, Diaghilev (and his Ballets Russes) and other luminaries of modernism worked and played together. Diaghilev and Stravinsky created three 20th century masterpieces during these years: L’Oiseau de feu (“The Firebird”) (1910), Petrushka (1911), and Le sacre du printemps (“The Rite of Spring”) (1913).
Later, in 1920, Diaghilev commissioned Stravinsky to score Pulcinella. Picasso designed the costumes and sets while LÃ©onide Massine created both libretto and choreography. Stravinsky’s response on being introduced to the little known, original music of Pergolesi is reported to have been: “A colour only has value in relation to the other colours which are placed next to it. Red has no value in itself. It only acquires it through its proximity to another red or a green, for example. And that is what I have wanted to do in music and what I look for first of all is quality of sound.” I don’t know if this is good science, but it certainly is provocative, almost as provocative as the other, more famous Stravinsky-ana: “music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all.” Perhaps this is what Gombrich meant when he said there is no such thing as art, only artists!?
There have been many photographs made of both Stravinsky and Picasso. And there are a number of portraits of Stravinsky done by Picasso; you can see a pencil piece here, in this excellent Wikipedia survey of Stravinsky’s life and work. One of my favorite photo portraits of Stravinsky is that done my Arnold Newman.
Pulitzer Prize winner, Claude Cookman has posted some class notes called Compare and Contrast to accompany a 20th century history of photography course he taught at Indiana University; he uses words wonderfully well to compare and contrast two photo portraits of Stravinsky—Newman’s and one of the two I’m aware of done by Henri Cartier-Bresson.
I think it’s important to always remember that the work artists do never exists in a vacuum, no matter how independent or revolutionary the impetus. Sometimes, as in the case of Stravinsky, Picasso and the other artist denizens of Paris of the teens and 20s of the last century, you luck out and inhabit an environment almost jungle-like in its primitive and rich fertility. Hopefully, one is young at the same time. And survives. One of my favourite books about that period is by Modris Eksteins. It’s called “Rites of Spring: The Great War And The Birth Of The Modern Age.”