The Actor 1904
Oil on Canvas
77.25 in. x 45.38 in.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
I do not think it is too great a stretch to say that Picasso is to modern art what Einstein is to modern science. Even that may not be enough, and we should include Newton and Darwin as well. Picasso is the embodiment of the perfect modern artist. His draftsmanship is unassailable. He could paint and draw and sculpt like any artist in history, but virtually no one could create as he did. He is responsible for over 8,000 works of art, a prodigious feat by any standard. There are enough books and anecdotes about Picasso to fill a pretty good bookstore and I am more than a little intimidated to say anything about his work at all.
He’s just that damned good. He knew it, too.
But in 1904, when he painted this picture, he was not at all sure that anyone else was ever going to find out. In the rooms he shared in Paris he often had to burn his paintings for warmth. The Actor is, in fact, two Picasso works for beneath it lies another picture which he had to paint over; the cost of a new canvas was beyond him. A few years later in a meeting that would change his life forever, he came under the considerable influence of Gertrude Stein who made sure the rest of the world got a chance to find out about this young artist. He never looked back, but he never forgot being poor either.
The Actor shows us a young acrobat, a saltimbanque such as would belong to the family he painted in 1905. These were the lowest form of entertainers of the period, traveling rogues who would do anything to put on a show. (They are very much like the Players of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.) Picasso loved their raw purity, and he chose them as symbols for the pursuit of artistic expression. The actor’s costume is that of an acrobat, and he is rehearsing his performance to come. The area behind him is abstract which, along with his lack of character garb, suggests to me that this is rehearsal, that he is yet to bloom as he will when the crowds are before him. A cuer sits in the prompt box to his right, hidden from the seats. We see only the thin hands and sheets of script, but we know he is there to support the actor, not only to free him of worry so he can concentrate on the poetry of performing, but also to prod and direct.
The actor seems to stand for Picasso himself, still young, still full of promise, dependent on the people around him, but determined in his own right to carve his own vision. There is an air of condescension to the actor, as if he is responding to a bit of addled stage direction. “Are you kidding me?” he seems to say. “Who is the artist here? Me or you? Can you not see how I dominate this stage? Can you not see how beautiful I am? How graceful? Look at my feet. Mine is a fencer’s stance, ready to attack or defend, to spring with grace in any direction. No matter how you plan, how you design, in the end it is up to me. Because I act. Without the actor, there is no action. No good thing can happen. No bad thing can happen. There is only death and time and boredom. Your time is done. My time is now. I do not care what is written, because I control what will happen. Because I am just that damned good.”
Picasso knew, you see, that there is no art form as dangerous and exciting as acting. All other art is static once completed. Even other performing arts such as singing and dancing are primarily faithful repetitions of a set piece. Acting is supposed to be like that, but it is not. In truth, as any director can tell you, the moment before a curtain rises is terrifying. Actors might do anything out there. They adlib, they pull pranks on their fellows, they change their minds on a whim and suddenly attack a role in an entirely new way right there in front of God and everybody, and the director can only cringe and watch. Every time an actor opens his mouth you have an equal chance for despair and joy, and all the other creative people involved in that process have to just sit there and take it. That is what attracts Picasso, the danger of it. It is easy to be avant-garde from the safety of your salon, but it is another thing altogether to ply art before a crowd day in, day out in real time with nothing between you and judgment but cheap stage cloth.
My son is an actor. Like Picasso in 1904 he can sense that his life is going to change soon. He can almost touch it. But in the end it will not matter, because whatever comes be it good, bad or indifferent, when he is on the stage he is in control, and the rest of us can only watch because we are in his time. And that’s okay.
Because he is just that damned good. He knows it, too.
Happy Birthday, Adam.