Picasso and Tolkien and obsession

Tolkien painting of Bilbo

“Everything we love is about to die, and that is why everything we love must be summed up, with all the high emotion of farewell, in something so beautiful we shall never forget it.”

In their own utterly distinct ways, Picasso and Tolkien were creative contemporaries.  They shared nothing, perhaps, beyond their being obsessed with their life’s work.

I (still) know very little about Picasso, but learned at the Tate Modern’s recent exhibition that in 1932, fifty years old, with a number of masterpieces behind him and a retrospective imminent that year, he was terrified that his work was no longer relevant, that he had nothing more to say. In setting about exploring the extent to which that was or wasn’t true, Picasso gave us perhaps his single greatest year, a staggering output that filled many rooms in the Tate gallery.

I was flabbergasted by how much he’d achieved in that year in his pursuit of obsessions with his mistress and his relevance. Marie-Thérèse Walter, the mistress, is the subject of much of his work during this year and it is a phase with a great deal of sensuality and sexuality, positive and negative, in his subject matter. The intensity of this affair and what it must have made him feel is clear from so many of the canvasses and pieces.

La Réve

Art demands your interpretation and in so doing it demands you take stock of yourself. For me in particular, with a comparatively simpler life, I see, at the age of 48, a man of similar age who’d worked to change what was possible with painting through all the years I was focused only on raising my family, working and gaming. I lacked motivation to explore anything beyond a few poems creatively but these have been happy years.

How different, the pace and focus of our lives.

I walked through room after room of charcoals, oils, pencils, watercolours, sculptures, studies, sketches and remarkable canvases, such as Girl before a Mirror.

Jeune Fille deviant un miroir

What I admired as much as his undeniable genius was that it was married to sheer, bloodyminded graft. Ten thousand hours be damned. Here was a perfectionist. Tolkien spoke of himself in a way I think applies to Picasso: “It is written in my life-blood, such as that is, thick or thin; and I can no other.”

As with the Tolkien exhibition, I felt emotional as I walked through the gallery. I’d tried, with Snakewood, to explore a little the notion of first person, to pay homage, as I’ve said before, to the masters that have come before me. Voice, camera, word choice, the manipulation of a scene to render the right emotional cues at the right weight, I’m conscious of all these things despite executing them with the grace of a clumsy novice. The thrill of it is undiminished, the process of it, sitting at my desk and summoning, is no longer a choice among many. It is heroin, now, where once it was coffee or tea. The longer I leave it, the more restless and angry I become. This might be a glimmer of what drives creatives such as Picasso and Tolkien. Just a few hours at my own coalface leaves me balanced, assuaged. I ‘re-appreciated’ too, after the exhibition, that I should begin to say whatever it is I have to say about the world. I’ve left it late in that regard, though much else in my life brings me peace and joy.

Visiting the Tolkien exhibition I saw these wonderful glimpses of the man behind the work, the notes written in the margins of exam papers, the tables showing the timeline and multiple plot threads of the Lord of the Rings, his technique for measuring distance extrapolated from the length of a single hobbit toenail. There were the original book covers and paintings we’ve seen reproduced many times, some with the publishers and printers’ hand-written notes. I loved in particular the rejection letter from Allen and Unwin for Beren and Luthien (“the tinkling verses go on – and on, conveying almost nothing. On that count alone I am afraid this is not even worth considering.”)

There were many maps, all so beautiful, but as photography was forbidden, I have very little to include here that you couldn’t find with a search engine. Of particular note was this beauty:

A section of the Middle-earth map annotated by JRR Tolkien and the illustrator Pauline Baynes

While the Picasso exhibition got me all emotional over seeing the results of genius and insecurity, this exhibition was more an emotional nostalgia trip; images and maps of this world so bound up in my mental DNA that to see the documents he drew, painted and wrote got me in the belly rather more than I would have expected. It says little more than that I don’t visit museums and galleries enough, that I thrill to the sight of the very brush strokes, ink and paint, that these great artists made.

I opened this post with the words of Picasso. There are so few years and so much beauty and pain to be shared, to be understood. For Tolkien, whose ambition was to give England nothing less than its own mythology, the years were indeed too few. Yet Middle-earth is an immortal majesty. How could I have waited so long?



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