Love’s warnings and Picasso’s prophetic perception
Love is never abrasive, destructive or cruel. But it can sometimes be straight and difficult. It may even be unpalatable. But that is the nature of love-motivated truth. And for something or someone to be truly prophetic it must be both – loving truth and truthful love. I was struck by an anecdote about Picasso, as related by Martin Gayford to David Hockney, in his wonderful A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney. For it really got me thinking about what constitutes the truly prophetic, as did other elements of their conversation.
The Prophetic Willingness to SEE
It was Hockney’s vision that completely knocked me out when I saw his recent retrospective at the Royal Academy. It offered unalloyed pleasure at the wonder of the simplest but most miraculous of things – a hawthorn bush or a woodland clearing. And his vision gives us his viewers the briefest of chances to see through his eyes… and thus to see the world differently. That was certainly my experience of the exhibition. And it was exciting to find that this was precisely his experience as a result of other exhibitions. As he says to Gayford in the book:
There was a fantastic Monet exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1995. They got a million people to see it. There are forty-six Monets in the Art Institute’s collection, which they lend to other exhibitions, so a lot of museums owed them a favour. As a result, for this exhibition they had got together about a hundred and fifty of his paintings. I went to see it one Sunday morning. It was fabulous. When I came out, I started looking at the bushes on Michigan Avenue with a little more care, because Monet had looked at his surroundings with such attention. He made you see more. Van Gogh does that for you too. He makes you see the world around just a little more intensely. And you enjoy seeing it like that, or I do. (p85)
That’s what a prophet should do: he/she should make you see more, see more intensely, more truthfully, after seeing more intensely themselves. But it doesn’t stop there. As the Picasso story suggests, as told by Martin Gayford…
The Prophetic Courage to WARN
John Richardson, Picasso’s biographer and a close friend of the artist in his later years, told me a story about Picasso:
Lucien Clergue, the photographer, knew Picasso incredibly well. The other day he said to me, ‘You know, Picasso saved my life.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Yes it was after a bullfight in Arles.’ Lucien said he had been feeling fine, had lost a bit of weight but wasn’t worried. Out of the blue Picasso said to him, ‘You go instantly to a hospital.’ Lucien asked ‘why?’ Picasso said ‘You’ve got something seriously wrong with you.’ Lucien was damned if he was going to do it, but Jacqueline [Picasso’s wife] added, ‘When Pablo says that, for God’s sake go.’ So he went, and the doctors had him taken straight into the operating theatre. They said he had an extremely rare type of peritonitis, which is lethal. The bad thing about it is that it doesn’t manifest itself in pain, it just kills you. Picasso used to say quite often, ‘I’m a prophet’.
Now, that initially sounds rather spooky: are we in the realms of the clairvoyant or possessed? Well, this is how Gayford describes Hockney’s reaction to it:
I repeated this to Hockney, who strongly agreed with that conclusion.
Picasso was a prophet. He must have seen something, most likely in Clergue’s face. Picasso must have looked at more faces than almost anybody, and he didn’t look at them like a photographer. He would have been thinking how would you draw it? Most people don’t look at a face too long; they tend to look away. But you do if you are painting a portrait. Rembrandt put more in the face than anyone before or since, because he saw more. That was the eye – and the heart. (p82)
Hockney latches on to the artist’s great gift of sight straightaway – and it is a gift. Artists (of all media) are first and foremost people who see more acutely than the rest of us mere mortals. True sight is never satisfied with the first impression or even the eighth impression – but keeps on looking to see beyond the surface of things. But they also have the courage to do something about it. That is love – in this case by Picasso for his friend.
So for all would-be prophets. Just as we should be quick to listen and slow to speak, so should we invest in looking before even thinking about warning. And it should ALWAYS be motivated by love. After all, isn’t that precisely what motivated the apostle Paul on his visit to Athens in Acts 17. When he looked around at the wonders of the city’s architecture, what did he see? He saw that the city ‘was full of false gods‘ but that they were a ‘very religious people‘. And once he’d seen, he spoke and warned… out of love. Now that was truly prophetic.