How To Understand a Picasso Painting: A Video Primer


Some­times it’s hard for the untrained eye to fig­ure out what exact­ly is going on in a Picas­so.

For­tu­nate­ly, the artist leaned toward infor­ma­tive, work­man­like titles.

Had he titled “Night Fish­ing at Antibes,” below, some­thing a bit more opaque—“Untitled No. 2,” say—the une­d­u­cat­ed eye might well per­ceive the nar­ra­tive as some­thing clos­er to “Drunk­en Night in a Con­vey­er Belt Sushi Joint.”

Even know­ing the cor­rect title, my gut still argues that the boomerang-head­ed lady with boobs like lips is singing karaoke…

But after watch­ing the above video by Evan Puschak, aka The Nerd­writer, I’m will­ing to con­cede that she’s stand­ing on a jet­ty, a like­ly amal­ga­ma­tion of two of Picas­so’s lovers.

(The less volup­tuous crea­ture stand­ing next to her is his wife, and my gut is eager to know why it looks like she’s top­less, a point on which Pushak is frus­trat­ing­ly mum.)

His process for under­stand­ing a Picas­so takes the gut response into account, but then flesh­es things out with four addi­tion­al steps. You can apply them to many oth­er artists’ work too.

  1. First reac­tion
  2. Con­tent
  3. Form
  4. His­tor­i­cal con­text
  5. Per­son­al con­text

It’s cer­tain­ly help­ful to know that the paint­ing was made in 1939.

You prob­a­bly don’t need the Inter­net to guess what world events were like­ly a source of pre­oc­cu­pa­tion for the artist, whose “Guer­ni­ca” was com­plet­ed just two years ear­li­er.

Con­tent-wise, Puschak truf­fles up some inter­est­ing geo­graph­i­cal ref­er­ences that elude most online analy­sis of the work. For instance, those pur­ple blocks in the upper left cor­ner now house the Musée Picas­so.

There may well be a sixth step. Ear­li­er, when a fan of the Nerdwriter’s week­ly video essay series asked Puschak how to under­stand art, he respond­ed:

All good art is try­ing to tell you some­thing about your life. Your life… specif­i­cal­ly. So under­stand­ing art is a process of under­stand­ing your­self, and vice ver­sa. In both cas­es, you only learn by engag­ing. Watch­ing isn’t enough, nei­ther is read­ing or lis­ten­ing or think­ing for that mat­ter. From my per­spec­tive, engage­ment means writ­ing. An idea that’s been snaking around in my videos for a long time is that we learn by say­ing, not think­ing. You know some­thing when you can artic­u­late it, and for that you need words and sen­tences and para­graphs. So intro­spect, write down what your mind is doing. And when you watch a movie or look at a paint­ing, write down how you feel about it. You’ll be amazed how one informs the oth­er, and before long you’ll see some beau­ti­ful sparks. 

Below are some of the resources Puschak cred­its with inform­ing this Nerd­writer episode:

Rudolf Arn­heim, “Picas­so’s Night Fish­ing at Antibes” The Jour­nal of Aes­thet­ics and Art Crit­i­cism — Vol. 22, No. 2 (Win­ter, 1963), pp. 165–167

Dou­glas N. Mor­gan, “Picas­so’s Peo­ple: A Les­son in Mak­ing Sense” The Jour­nal of Aes­thet­ics and Art Crit­i­cism Vol. 22, No. 2 (Win­ter, 1963), pp. 167–171

Nina Coraz­zo, “Picas­so’s ‘Night Fish­ing at Antibes’: A New Source” The Burling­ton Mag­a­zine Vol. 132, No. 1043 (Feb., 1990), pp. 99–101

Mark Rosen­thal, “Picas­so’s Night Fish­ing at Antibes: A Med­i­ta­tion on Death” The Art Bul­letin Vol. 65, No. 4 (Dec., 1983), pp. 649–658

Albert Boime, “Picas­so’s “Night Fish­ing at Antibes”: One More Try” The Jour­nal of Aes­thet­ics and Art Crit­i­cism Vol. 29, No. 2 (Win­ter, 1970), pp. 223–226

Tim­o­thy Anglin Bur­gard, “Picas­so’s Night Fish­ing at Antibes: Auto­bi­og­ra­phy, Apoc­a­lypse, and the Span­ish Civ­il War” The Art Bul­letin Vol. 68, No. 4 (Dec., 1986), pp. 657–672

Lawrence D. Steefel, Jr., “Body Imagery in Picas­so’s “Night Fish­ing at Antibes” Art Jour­nal Vol. 25, No. 4 (Sum­mer, 1966), pp. 356–363+376

You can view the Nerdwriter’s oth­er videos on his web­site or sub­scribe to his YouTube chan­nel where a new video is pub­lished every Wednes­day.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Picas­so Cre­ate Entire Paint­ings in Mag­nif­i­cent Time-Lapse Film (1956)

The Mys­tery of Picas­so: Land­mark Film of a Leg­endary Artist at Work, by Hen­ri-Georges Clouzot

How to Look at Art: A Short Visu­al Guide by Car­toon­ist Lyn­da Bar­ry

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Her play Zam­boni Godot is open­ing in New York City in March 2017. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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