There is this story I heard as a child, about someone who recognised a stranger he had seen in a portrait by Picasso — one of his “analytical cubist” portraits, painted many years earlier.
The story — whether it’s true or not — is consonant with the ideal of twentieth century painters: they wanted to paint not how things look, but how they are. Even though the sitter’s appearance must have changed, his essence remained the same, and that’s how he was recognised.
It has become almost a cliche nowadays that our senses don’t give us access to “real reality” (and of course, philosophers have been entertaining this mind-boggling idea for centuries). The truth, according to this line of thought, is to be sought beyond ordinary senses — with your eyes closed, and in meditative silence:
The essential things in life are seen not with the eyes, but with the heart. (Antoine de Saint Exupéry).
This conclusion may sound like a death verdict for the art of painting. But is it really true?
Obviously, Picasso didn’t think so. It may look as though, in his analytical cubism portraits, he takes the familiar three-dimensional reality, as seen by the eyes, and deconstructs it into a chaotic collection of flat rectangular shapes, perhaps in a desperate quest to find the invisible essence. But I believe he is doing something quite different, almost exactly opposite: in the very process of painting, he catches a moment when the familiar three-dimensional “reality” doesn’t yet exist — one of the initial stages of its emergence.
What the eyes see cannot be three-dimensional, for the simple and obvious reason that their retinas is two-dimensional. The raw sensory input we get from the eyes is two-dimensional: a complex pattern of neural responses on the retina in response to light falling on it. To be more precise, there is a third dimension, but it’s time: this pattern of neural responses is in constant flux.
The conscious mind doesn’t get to see this raw sensory input, because the brain is constantly at work below the threshold of consciousness, building a coherent three-dimensional illusion it presents to the mind as “visible reality”. There is even a tricky system inside there which hides from us the time the brain needs to construct this illusion, so that the minds is fooled into believing that it actually sees things out there, exactly as they are, and exactly when they appear before the eyes. It is these intricate constructs of the brain that constitute our familiar three-dimensional reality.
The whole system is essential for a human being to be functional in the world of things, but it can be suspended within the space of painting process, deliberately slowed down, so the artist’s mind gains some access to the raw visual input before the three-dimensional illusion emerges. This is what, I believe, Picasso shows us in his “analytical cubist” paintings. The conscious mind finally gets to see the “internal” raw data from which the reality it ordinarily operates in is constantly being constructed and adjusted by the brain.
Are these images closer to what’s “really real”, to the essence of things and people, than our habitual, three-dimensional, representations? I don’t know, and I guess we might never know — but, at the very least, they show us the role our brains play in creating what we implicitly take for reality.
This stage of processing raw visual data happens in all of us: it’s not a painter’s prerogative; it’s not a matter of artistic talent. But in a painting like this, the painter opens up his inner space, the inner workings of his brain, in a very primal sense. Picasso invites the viewer to share this space: to see what he saw in the process of seeing it, to temporarily “merge” your brain’s visual processing with his.
In 1923, Gertrude Stein wrote a “portrait” of Pablo Picasso, which shows how deeply she understood what he was doing. The complete title of the poem is: “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait Of Picasso”. Here is how it starts (the link above will take you to the complete text, with a recording of Stein reciting the poem):
If I told him would he like it. Would he like it if I told him.
Would he like it would Napoleon would Napoleon would would he like it.
If Napoleon if I told him if I told him if Napoleon. Would he like it if I told him if I told him if Napoleon. Would he like it if Napoleon if Napoleon if I told him. If I told him if Napoleon if Napoleon if I told him. If I told him would he like it would he like it if I told him.
In its puzzling impact on the reader’s mind, the poem uncannily replicates the first experience of Picasso’s portraits. Just like Picasso, Stein aims to represent not how Picasso looks, but how he is — and what he does. Only he does this with visual processing, and she “translates” it to another neural system, equally essential: language processing. She catches verbalised thoughts in the process of their emergence: the chunks of language flowing through the brain as its neural networks are trying to converge on something coherent.
As I listen to the recording, my brain gradually gives up its attempts to analyse it as “normal” language, yet it cannot help responding to its linguistic chunks. The overall sensation is of synchronisation — of shared experience of language processing, as though a deeper channel opens between her brain and mine, with the mind witnessing from the sidelines.
This kind of surrender is also, I find, the most rewarding way of looking at Picasso’s portraits — letting my eyes take in the image, and my system of visual processing synchronise with that of Picasso, with the mind just witnessing what emerges, without trying to interfere: an exquisite experience of sharing the same “inner space”, something way beyond the level at which conscious minds can communicate through realistic paintings and polished, structured language.