Flickerings of genius

Some painters are obviously fascinated by the evanescent phenomenon of fire for its own sake -- de la Tour with the candle flame, a still center of illumination in the hush of night, Turner with its cataclysmic splendour as it devours the Houses of Parliament and flares wildly skywards. Rather less directly, the mannerist paintings of El Greco had shown figures in pious ecstasy , carried away with the elongated grace and sinuosity of rising flames. Perhaps a similar fervour -- who knows? -- suggested the possibility of the aptly named "flamboyant" tracery of late French Gothic cathedrals.

Picasso, in this unusual drawing, shows a quite different interest in flames -- neither holy, sublimely destructive, ecstatic nor fervently decorative. At first sight, and since the drawing is apparently unconnected with any known painting by the Spanish artist, it seems that he was merely observing and describing, indulging in a fascination shared with anyone who has ever sat by his fireside and gazed at the flicker and leap of flames as the wood or coal caught alight.

Though it is true that Picasso's art is often bound up with quite ordinary day-to-day experiences, is even in some ways like a diary, he rarely, if ever, just recorded something for the sole pleasure of doing so. Almost everything he painted or drew entered the river of his own private mythography. Nature is there to feed his art; his art is not there to subserve, or merely observe, nature. In the instance of the "Burning Logs" it is really impossible to tell to what extent nature is observed, to what extent remembered. Perhaps his remarkable visual memory evoked it because of some sudden expressive whim. This , after all, is the way with flames. To observe them ism to memorize them. No sooner do they appear than they vanish; no sooner vanish than reappear. They maintain a kind of wavering form, but it is constant only by means of self-renewal. They are in fact, perfect signs for Picasso's own art, and one can see why their elusive dance, always changing, always the same, appealed to him enough to prompt this energetic drawing. It is the drawing, not the flames, that matters most.

Picasso had a love of style for its own sake. He seems to have been fascinated by his own chameleon character, his own ingenuity and skill in multiplying and propagating techniques. In one of his aphoristic (and often ironic) remarks about art, he claimed to have no style because he had so many. "You see me here and yet I am already changed. I'm already elsewhere. I'm never fixed and that's why I have no style." On another occasion he said: ". . . when you draw a head, you must draw a head, you must draw like that head. . . . If, for instance, you take a tree . . . at the foot of the tree there is a goat, and beside the goat a little girl tending the goat. Well, you need a different drawing for each. The goat is round, the little girl is square, and the tree is a tree. And yet people draw all three in the same way. That is what is false. Each should be drawn in a completely different way."

And this -- for all its wit -- seems true enough of "Burning Logs." Picasso always allowed himself to reuse some of the shifting, free viewpoints liberated by cubism in the early part of the century whenever the occasion suited. This is one of his styles. Perhaps the minor marvel of this drawing is that the style is so identifiable with, so apt for the description of, the actual behaviour of fire. Although stylized in the extreme, completely translated into his own astringent and deliberately ungraceful linearity -- almost as if he were drawing something as formal as twisted metal sculptures -- he seems to have found a university recognizable "sign" for the exciting fitfulness, the brilliant contortions of the flame tongues, in a log fire.

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