Wrong to Assume?
“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” –Pablo Picasso
The human brain, the world’s ultimate meaning-seeker, is so curious that it often jumps to conclusions. In society, we often think negatively of assumptions because of their stereotypical nature. We say, do not assume that such and such has happened; rather, go to the source and hear the truth for yourself. To assume is to create falsified information – that is, if you are wrong. Therefore, it is better to take the time to figure out and locate the truth.
So, if it is so wrong to assume, why do we do it? By allowing ourselves to create answers in order to fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle, we save ourselves time. For example, if the trashcans are at the top of my driveway when I leave for work and at the bottom of my driveway when I come home, I will assume that my husband has moved them because it is trash day. I do not assume that the wind has miraculously blown them side by side to the edge of the street; nor do I assume that the cans have grown legs and walked themselves down to be emptied. I correctly assume the most logical answer. If we did not assume, daily happenings would become treacherously long experiences.
Vision, a vastly rich and demanding operation, relies on the brain to constantly assume. For instance, objects that are farther away typically appear smaller than objects that are closer. Imagine if we did not always assume this. Imagine driving down the street and how every tree and every car kept enlarging exponentially as the moved closer to you until suddenly they disappeared. What a terrifying experience? If we did not have luxury of assumption, we would simply burn out within minutes of opening our eyes.
A pioneer is one who first explores new territory; one who discovers a new space. While he has been called many things, no other word describes Pablo Picasso more accurately than pioneer. While Paul Cézanne, the father of modern art, sought to break down an image into its nuts and bolts in order to reveal true form, Cubism followed the same process with one added step: re-assembling the pieces. Picasso sought to portray a multi-faceted object of re-organized and re-structured fragments that would transport the image to a larger context, one where space and time was not firm, rather, unbound.
“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.”
Discerning space, as previously discussed, is seemingly simple because of its immediacy. Cézanne displayed the patterns of recognition through which depth is acknowledged, as did Picasso. However, Picasso extended the possibilities of space.
Through evolutionary purposes, humans developed what the author will call the ‘assumption factor’. It was a necessity for our ancestors to detect predators in the wild, as to survive. This meant, for example, they developed the ability to decipher bear from tree (in a rough terrain these items blended together). In the simplest terms, both are large and brown, but their texture and format differed.
If then our vision noted a pattern of bark alternating with fur, the brain would automatically, and rightfully, assume that an animal was standing behind a series of tree trunks. The figure is then imagined as a whole, as opposed to individual, broken pieces. This is the image conjured in our brain, not readily seen. Elementary as it seems, it is a crucial ability of survival to make this assumption.
Weeping Woman, 1937
Picasso produced this in paint. His portraits, although often described as jumbled and distorted, actually demonstrated that imagined image. A face can be viewed at any angle, and the rest of the figure is put together in the mind. The profile alone is seen, but it is the head as a whole that is perceived. Explicit mental patterns in the brain, cultivated over thousands of years of evolution, allow for this process.
Picasso gives our brain a shortcut. Instead of painting an accurate, photorealistic portrait, leaving the brain to play the same guessing games it goes through on an hourly basis, he just lays all of the information out on the table. He gives us profile and then some. Picasso pulls the other half of the face into clear view without changing the first view, giving the audience two vantage points. Now, not only do we cut out the time it takes to assume (which is quite monotonous and taxing time), we are given this super portrait, an ultra-face. Its like nothing we have ever seen and yet, it is not foreign.
Vision presents a lot of broken information. The mind has the task of re-assembling them and figuring out the puzzle. Picasso took out the middleman and in turn, created an entirely new dimension of super-space.
Single Frame Motion
“I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”
Time can be discussed in a number of ways. Philosophically, humans will discern time for, well, the rest of time. Mechanically, we account for time by witnessing motion. In other words, by watching a bird fly, or grass blow in the wind, we are accumulating time in motion. This is why a still life or portrait may appear timeless; it is unchanging, unmoving.
The biological process of watching motion is a tedious one. As photons of light enter the photoreceptors in the retina of our eye, other cells that link to the receptors receive the neural responses, too. Before the signal transmits, these linking cells first combine and compare each individual photoreceptor. After traveling through the optic nerve and visual pathways, motion sensitive cells activate and decipher the distance and velocity of the object (Rheingans, P. 1990).
This series of instantaneous impulses is somewhat like watching a movie. Each frame acts as an individual neural response of a still image, which strung together creates an illusion of fluid movement. The process is largely dictated by light perception; where the light source is hitting the object, and how slowly or quickly the object becomes lighter or darker.
Early Cubism is like a series of individual still frames, one placed on top of the other. What we are left with is a single frame of motion; at first, a jumbled mess, but with patience, an extraordinary orchestration. Ma Jolie, 1911-12 (seen below), or ‘My pretty girl’, is a portrait of Picasso’s lover playing a guitar.
Seen at the lower left hand corner of the painting is the bottom frame of the instrument – twice. In the lower center, her hand appears – twice. Towards the top, an elbow and possible smile float amidst the gray planes. This object is not stationary in the least.
Ma Jolie represents a series of motions juxtaposed upon one another. The figure is mainly void of color, just as motion is detected by lightness and darkness. We look at a single picture, but our mind sees the movements, as if it was an optical illusion. The canvas holds an entire story from start to finish, as if an orchestra was played in one chord.
The Final Frontier
“I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.”
As Picasso’s pursuit of time and space evolved, so did the level of abstraction in his works. He began to tap into another factor of perception that deals with a different kind of time and space, and has yet to be acknowledged: memory.
When the brain receives sensory information, nerve cells create connections to one another, so that the information can transmit impulses to the brain. As maturation occurs, neurons mature, and the brain creates an estimated 100 to 500 trillion synapses by adulthood. These synapses create an atlas of information flow in the brain. And although some pruning takes place with age, plasticity never disappears. In other words, never in a human’s entire lifetime, do they stop adapting (Barry, A. M., 2006).
Neural pathways are therefore, constantly changing. The delicate synapses are prone to shift in strength. Memories recalled are fallible and open to extreme subjectivity. If asked to bring forth a picture of your mother in your mind, more than a handful of images would be conjured. These images bring along with them emotions, colors, smells, etc. Even with your mother standing in front of you, these images and emotions, amongst other new images and emotions, would again flood your brain. The result is an abstract blend of infinite elements.
At the age of 62, Picasso had built for himself a life of incredible experiences. He met a woman named Françoise Gilot with whom he had two children, Claude and Paloma. Although known to be somewhat reckless and abusive at times, his dramatically romantic ways always had him in love. Hence, he would frequently paint portraits of his lovers, and paint them with heartfelt emotion. The product was hardly literal, rather, a boiled down version of the thick brew of memory in his brain.
Françoise Gilot with Claude and Paloma, 1951
Memory, fleeting and morphing at every moment, is our brain’s way of hoarding information. While it may not be the most stable system, we refer to it constantly. Sometimes we go to our memory for cold facts, in which case they may be there or may have been pruned away. Other times, we go to our brains for experience, in which case the floodgates of imagination and emotion spill open. One memory is never the same as the last time you recalled it. To translate this ever-changing experience onto canvas is to tame a wild beast. The product, if successfully achieved, is nothing less than haunting. Françoise Gilot with Claude and Paloma, 1951, is the perfect memory.
“Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”
Without perception, the world is at most data. Once the eyes are open, verbatim is out the window. Picasso allowed the world to grasp this concept with remarkable grace. He produced holistic thinking in paint; whether it was an entire figure on one plane, an entire movement in one figure, or all of the above on one canvas. Through his relentless pursuit of the laws of truth, he found that truth had no laws at all. Picasso’s vision was boundless, and for that we consider him genius.
Barry, A. M. (2006). Perceptual Aesthetics: Transcendent Emotion, Neurological Image. Visual Communication Quarterly, Vol. 13 Summer, pp. 134-155.
Rheingans, P. (1990). Motion and Interaction. University of Maryland Baltimore County
Gieseke, L. (2009). Picasso’s Guernica in 3D.