Brushing up on the Painter’s Sword

Top L: Picasso, Rape of the Sabines (detail); Top R: Picasso, Artist and Model (detail) 
Bottom: Three drawings by Picasso

The mind of an artist is poetic so, if you want to understand painting and sculpture, read poets. Their literary metaphors are the artist’s visual ones. However, beware: poets understand visual art no better than most people. Emile Zola, Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé all wrote nonsense about Manet and Cézanne. More recently the Greek poet and Nobel Prize winner, Odysseus Elytis, wrote an essay on Picasso. It’s a strange piece but with a gem unwittingly inside. After describing several different types of artistic personality, he adds:

“Amidst all these involuntary actors there suddenly appears Picasso with the look of Alexander the Great: the brush in his right hand has taken the place of the sword, and he opens his way and advances by cutting great swaths through reality.”1

Nice words that mean little. However, as elsewhere in art, the painter’s brush is indeed his sword. Yet no literary poet, it seems, has ever realized it. Not even the wonderfully-named Odysseus. Daumier the artist did, as you can see below.

Daumier, Battle of the Schools


1. Odysseus Elytis, "Picasso's Equivalences", trans. Ivar and Artrid Ivask, Books Abroad, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Autumn, 1975), pp. 649-651. Originally published in French in 1951.

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