Guernica by Picasso

In his weekly column, Santanu Borah reflects on art, creativity, and the worlds that arise out of, and beyond, imagination

When you look deep into the soul of the known universe, into the abyss of dark matter that has no bottom or top, beyond the clutches of dimension, you will find a poem that is endless. It never stops, you can’t grasp it. It is a smoke sculpture without form, a liquid vibration, a nebulous emotion born of a mother that knows no love nor hate nor light. It can be seen, not observed because it does not interact with you like “human events”. Or because it is a part of you. It is a vision that trickles in without being regarded by sight or any other sense.

Art is, often, like this unseen and unobservable dark matter. Collective wisdom says you must paint or create from your imagination. But where would those unique “beings” come from if they reside beyond the realm of imagination?

Art that will truly surpass the oceans of time would have to come from a place where human imagination cannot reach. Since we are saddled with our eyes, they form reference points of what we believe have never been imagined before. Can we imagine that which we haven’t seen or known in some way? Can our unconscious mind function so independently that nothing can wrap its head around it?

Wouldn’t it be lovely to paint a picture or make a sculpture of something that is so alien that it cannot be regarded by the limitations of human or even animal language (if there is any such thing) or consciousness? If you ask me, that would be the highest point of art, the ultimate zenith of creation, a place that imagination cannot conquer.

The Studio by Picasso

However, the truth is more banal. We often paint what we know, see or hear about, even when the preferred method is abstraction or non-representational art. In this banal world, you rarely see atoms in the wind that softly caress the cheeks of a flying child (even this is predictable because I imagined it). In fact, we, like children, live in our unaware wisdom and instinct, and that is the best we can do.

The only original concept we have before us is that we do not know two-paisa worth of what reality is and how truth functions through it. Worst of all, we do not even truly know why we make art. At best, we paint our assumptions and whims. And when that is well done, we tend to pat ourselves on the back. I am not talking about the art-viewing masses (that includes artists) here because they operate on second-hand terrestrial events like spirituality, dreams, politics and what have you.

In this rather melancholic soup, the only way to make sense of art is by seeing it purely as work. The artist is just like a postman delivering letters to folks she or he doesn’t know. And the worst-case scenario is, an artist steals, grapples in the mud or repeats old tunes by adding a few extra notes here and there. Which is why, I find relief in seeing art as work, like any other work that requires a degree of specialisation and skill. Actually, one does not have to go far to understand this. Leonardo da Vinci, that great Renaissance man, was as famous for his great works as he was for his legendary procrastination, and people procrastinate only when something feels like work. That is why Picasso loved to wear work overalls while painting. In fact, seeing painting as work is a salvation of sorts.

So, the simplest thing to do is to drink your coffee and get to work, and hope for the best. I would go so far as to say that working on automatic mode might be far more helpful than scaling a delusional mountain of grandeur. And once what you were doing is done, get some rest because you will need it. Imagination will never be your slave. It will only show you most of what you have already seen or experienced. However, if your work is well-wrought to the last seemingly unimportant detail (doesn’t matter what your style is) and you get to wipe out a little sweat off your forehead, it is probably a successful day.

Picasso, the “thief” and da Vince, the procrastinator

Malaga by Picasso

The world’s most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, was stolen from the Louvre on August 21, 1911. It so happened that a week or so later, a man who went by the name Joseph Géry Pieret said that Picasso and Apollinaire, the artist’s friend and avant-garde poet, had Iberian sculptures that were stolen from the Louvre. This strange claim made Picasso a prime suspect in the theft.

Truth being stranger than fiction, it was actually Pieret himself who had stolen the sculptures and sold them to Picasso. And Picasso being Picasso, purchased the items despite the sculptures expressly saying that they were the property of the Louvre.

While Picasso turned over the sculptures, he and his friend Apollinaire were interrogated in court about where the ‘Mona Lisa’ was. Thankfully for the artist, there was no evidence to show that he had any hand in the crime and was allowed to go free.

About two years later, Picasso heaved a sigh of relief when it was discovered that an employee of the Louvre called Vincenzo Peruggia had stolen the painting.

Finally, here is something that will give you some hope: Leonardo da Vinci was a genius at procrastination as well. He left may works unfinished, as evidenced by the countless notes and sketches he left behind after his death in 1519. The grand master of the Renaissance took painfully long to finish ‘The Last Supper’ – three whole years. That too after he faced an ultimatum from his patron that he would stop funding the artist. That’s not all, the iconic ‘Mona Lisa’ took Leonardo a ‘back-resting’ 14 years to complete. And you know how little the painting is. In today’s corporatized world of art, the celebrated artist would have been summarily forgotten and thrown to the wind.