Never has an artist been so loved and so loathed. Picasso has been described as the Marmite of the art world. Picasso’s Light Drawings are perfect examples of what I mean.
Translation for readers living outside the United Kingdom: it means you either love him or you hate him. This comes from the leading brand of yeast extract called Marmite, which has this no-compromising reputation. For the record, I am both a Marmite and a Picasso lover.
It may be an age thing, because as I mature like a plump old Cheddar cheese, I find myself more and more and more drawn to Picasso’s work. One aspect of his art I was unaware of are the Light Paintings. Captured by Life photographer, Gjon Mili, in 1949, they are almost accidental.
Mili was a photographer famous for his highly dramatic use of light sources to illuminate whatever he aimed his lenses at. The pictures he took are worth spending a few moments examining. (Here I had a link to the images at the Life website, but they took the images down!)
Light Painting in History
The first known attempt at Light Painting Photography was not for artistic but for commercial use. Almost 100 years ago, back in 1914, Frank Gilbreth and his wife Lillian Moller Gilbreth were conducting an early prototype time-and-motion study. They were using an open-shutter camera and small lights to track the movements of manufacturing and clerical workers.
The first known artistic use of the technique was in 1935 when Man Ray created the series he called Space Writing. It wasn’t until 2009 that photographer Ellen Carey discovered Man Ray’s signature in light.
It was Gjon Mili who got Picasso interested in Light Painting when he showed him photographs of skaters taken with small lights attached to their ice-skates. Mili reports that straight away, Picasso began to play with his flashlight in a darkened room. At this first session, Picasso gave the photographer fifteen minutes in which to take pictures, but the results were so spectacular that he allowed a total of five sessions. The most famous image is universally known as ‘Picasso draws a centaur in the air’.
To me, Picasso’s light drawings, simple as they are, demonstrate the artist’s true and inherent greatness. Anyone one could get similar results accidentally, or after many hours practising. Picasso just did it.
My favourite Picasso anecdote is the one in which he finds himself talking to an American GI, who admits that he can’t stand abstract paintings because they are so “unrealistic”. The conversation moved on to the soldier’s girlfriend and a photograph is proudly produced to show the artist.
“My word,” exclaims Picasso, examining the snapshot, “is she really that small?”
I’ve never liked Picasso’s painting but these lights pictures resonate with me. They make me think of ‘seeing’ music somehow.
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