As a kid, I discovered my mother’s art books. She protected the precious tomes within plastic covers, locked behind the glass doors of a bright yellow bookcase. Her collection included overviews of the Renaissance, Ancient Greece, and Lost Worlds, as well as da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Michelangelo — all massive books she purchased while an art student at LSU around 1960.

Art books are expensive, and back in those days her family (a 1950s New Orleans overnight success story in the oil industry) had the money to support the whims they understood, such as fashion and cars (in my mother’s case, a yearly Cadillac convertible), as well as the whims they never understood, such as her Fine Arts Major and her book collection.

By the time my sister and I appeared, the money was gone, the dresses relegated to a ‘costume closet,’ and the cars long sold. But the art books remained and remain protected and precious. Among them is a boxed set of linen-covered monographs of Modern Artists. These include Klee, Kandinsky, Dali, Braque, and my favorite, Picasso.

Pablo Picasso
  • David Douglas Duncan
  • Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso died in France in the spring of 1973. I was a young child, but I recall my mother talking about this creative genius. Her hero-worship affected me, and the artist rose even higher on that pedestal when my elementary school art teachers chose him for our studies. Looking back, they probably found Picasso more accessible to young students than the current and lofty Abstract Expressionists, as typified by artists like Motherwell and de Kooning. (Pop Art, as far as I can tell, was either not yet understood or not yet taken seriously enough to be worthy of the classroom).

Guernica, 1937 (Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid)

When I studied Art History in college, I recall Picasso as practically vilified in academic circles. There was talk that he hadn’t created anything worthy of study since Cubism or Guernica (above), and that as an old man he lost his touch, floundering between grotesque figures and half-hearted revisits of his earlier styles. (below, a late Picasso)

Nude and Smoker, 1968

Rather than discourage me, these criticisms made me curious, and I poured through my mother’s books searching for answers —- hoping to train my own eye to see the master’s downfall in his artwork.

Yet I saw only brilliance.

I returned to his simplest images repeatedly, and I wondered: Why should he call this finished? What could it possibly mean? Why do I come back to it again and again?

The Bull, 1946

And finally, why is it that I would give up all of my worldly possessions to own a simple Picasso drawing when even I, who can’t so much as draw a daisy, could probably produce a fair copy?

It was during this time that art took on specific meanings for me. I became an art snob in my circle-of-one. I gained freedom of thought, and I dared to look at art in my own way.

Little did I know that I was training for my future life with an artist, not only to study the work itself (for my own appreciation of what George Rodrigue has done in the past, for the projects currently on his easel, and for his unwillingness to retrace old ground); but also to face both the obvious insults (“My 8 year-old kid could paint that!”) as well as the disguised ones (“Rodrigue is a brilliant businessman, a marketing genius!”)

Picasso’s whole life —- the Blue Period, Cubism, the African paintings, and so much more — is inside his simplest works. Had he painted them all at age nineteen, they would mean nothing. But at age ninety, they mean everything. The fact that he probably painted some in a matter of minutes or that second grade students everywhere can duplicate some of his most abstracted designs is irrelevant.

I asked George Rodrigue about Picasso, and he described an art school assignment at the Art Center College of Design, in which he was ‘to create a painting in the style of an old master.’ George chose a guitar and collage, ala Picasso.

"I am using your latest papery and powdery procedures. I am in the process of imagining a guitar and I am using a bit of dust against our horrible canvas," wrote Picasso in a letter to George Braque, 1912.

Guitar, 1912 (Museum of Modern Art, New York)
  • Pablo Picasso
  • Guitar, 1912 (Museum of Modern Art, New York)
Guitar, 1965 (Collection of the artist)

Rodrigue also pulled a well-worn book, Goodbye Picasso*, from the shelf, turned to a bookmarked page and said:

“I remember how messy his house was, and I was so impressed.”

Picasso in his studio, age 80
  • Picasso in his studio, age 80

"It took me a whole lifetime," declared Picasso, famously, "to learn how to draw like a child again."

Happy Birthday to the Master—

Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)

-please join me on facebook for more art, photographs and discussion-

-also this week, “A Cajun in California,” a story for Musings of an Artist’s Wife

-here's a not-to-be-missed Picasso birthday video, courtesy of The Modern Lovers

-sources: *Goodbye Picasso, 1974 by David Douglas Duncan, Grosset & Dunlap, New York; Picasso, 1997 by Carsten-Peter Warncke and Ingo F .Walther, Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmbH, Koln, Germany; Understanding Picasso, 1974 by Domenico Porzio and Marco Valsecchi, Newsweek Books, New York