Picasso is 76.
And he’s knackered.
He’ll never admit it. Frankly, he doesn’t even like to be near someone who’s ill, let alone show signs of frailty himself.
Still, he could do with an Ovaltine.
And maybe a malted milk biscuit – he loves those.
And you know what, he damn well deserves a treat. He’s been distracted for a while now.
He’ll often sit around, feeling a little absent, staring out the window, observing the pigeons that peck at his windowsill.
People don’t seem as reverent as they have been throughout his long and successful career.
Gone is the automatic adoration of his blue and rose periods. His ground-breaking experiments in cubism are now but a memory. And the slap-to-the-face shock paintings like Guernica and Les Demoiselles de Avignon have pretty much taken on a life of their own, almost independent of him now.
Sure, it’s obvious his name will live on forever, not only in art but in culture generally. But, right now, he’s not having the best of time with the critics.
Hmm, how can I fix this, he wonders?
Searching for originality
He ums and ahs with a few ideas he’s been kicking around the studio, but nothing really sticks. Though original, daring and utterly inspired (as he believes all his work to be), he’s just not feeling it.
But then a thought.
I know, he proclaims to a startled pigeon who was trying to catch some shut eye on the window. I’ll paint a new version of the most revered image in Spanish art, Las Meninas by the great master, Diego Velasquez.
He looks to the pigeon for a response.
Damn you, he shouts to the bird. I’ll paint 58 of the buggers then.
The pigeon coos…whatever.
Off shuffles old Pablo to paint what will become a series of 58 paintings reinterpreting one of the greatest and – crucially – most well-known paintings in the history of art.
What’s going on here?
Pablo Picasso, himself one of the most original artists of the last 200 years, essentially starts copying out the work of a man who first did it in 1656.
Original? Surely not.
And as I say, it’s not like people weren’t already familiar with the work and by reworking the piece Picasso aimed to bring it greater attention, like Kanye West might sample a lesser-known artist in a track today.
No. This is one of the most famous images in art, by one of the world’s most famous and revered artists. Ever. But still, Picasso says, screw it, I’ll just copy that.
All manner of inspiration
First, homage. He simply respected Velasquez as an artist.
Who wouldn’t? He’s pretty bloody good and when you see Las Meninas up close, it’s visually arresting. It drags you to it from wherever you’re standing in the room.
But it wasn’t just professional admiration. It was also personal.
It’s said Picasso first saw Las Meninas when he was a child of fourteen and it had a profound impact on him. His sister, who he adored, died soon after he saw the painting and he began to sketch the blonde princess in the painting in what some argue is a representation of his sister, Conchita.
Finally, and most usefully to us creative types worrying about our work being deemed original, Picasso was using the master’s work as a point of departure.
He understood that by putting his own spin on the image, he would in turn create something new and original.
He wasn’t concerned in the slightest if people thought his take was good, or indeed, whether it was original. It was simply his interpretation.
He had supposedly explained to his close friend and admin guy, Jaime Sabartés, six years before starting the series, that if he were to copy Las Meninas, he would do so by “forgetting Velazquez” and the test of whether the copy was any good would be in the result being “a detestable Meninas for a traditional painter.”
He knew in being his own version, it would inherently be original. And quite possibly disliked.
But, he suggested, it would be “my Meninas.”
And that’s what’s important.
Here Picasso reminds us of the power of something fundamentally ‘being ours’. It doesn’t matter where the idea may have come from. That we have developed it and made it our own is what’s important.
As Adam Grant notes in his book Originals, “we are constantly borrowing thoughts, whether intentionally or inadvertently.”
And here’s the thing…that’s OK.
What’s important is that you’re able to put your own stamp on those borrowed ideas, that you’re able to bring something new and authentic to the party. That’s what really counts.
Compare Picassos paintings of Las Meninas with Velazquez’s and you’ll see two (well, technically 59) startingly original pieces of art.
The fact is, in expressing your own authentic interpretation of an idea, you can’t help but be original.