Observations based on my 2014 lecture at the Tweed Museum of Art
Much of my spare time during summer of 2014 was spent preparing a Tweevenings lecture on the theme Picasso, Storytelling and The Unknown Masterpiece. Like most teachers and writers, I get as invigorated by the process of researching as I do in sharing them with others. Lectures or article assignments become a catalyst, legitimizing our time investment here.
Research is a bit like mining. Usually we dig up way more information than there is space or time to transmit it. Once collected, we must choose which gems to present and which to set aside for future polishing. One evening in July I had an “Aha!” moment. I’d become aware of many parallels between the 19th century author Honore de Balzac’s life and the 20th century artist Pablo Picasso and as I lay them side-by-side I noted that Bob Dylan’s career has revealed similar characteristics and attributes. Here are five that especially stand out.
Each left home at age 19 to live in the cultural arts center of the world. And within a relatively short time frame each caught the attention of people who had connections and the power to advance their careers. Picasso arrived in Paris at the turn of the century, having honed his skills as a painter and draftsman in Spain left his home country to be part of the art center of the world. Dylan similarly left Minnesota for the New York, which had now become the world’s arts and culture power center as a result of Europe’s WW2 talent drain when many leading authors and artists fled the Nazis and the Continent. Balzac’s real situation was just a tad bit different, though similar. His family moved to Paris when he was in his mid-teens. Paris was the bustling center of culture and arts at the time. When he was 19 his family moved away from Paris to a smaller town outside the city. Balzac’s ambition to become an author led him to remain in Paris, leaving home as his family moved away. Interestingly, all three men changed their names. Balzac added stature to his name by adding the “de” between his first and last names; Honore de Balzac. Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan. Pablo Ruiz y Picasso was actually baptized Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Martyr Patricio Clito. Shortening to Picasso, however, reflects more practicality than ambition.
Balzac, Picasso and Dylan were all innovators. Balzac re-shaped literary fiction by bringing attention to detail to every aspect of life in every aspect of society. Picasso was on the forefront of many avant garde movements, most famously cubism, but also collage, the incorporation of African influences, surrealism and others, ever exploring and redefining classical and cutting edge methods with his own keen sensibilities. Likewise Dylan took the music scene in new directions
Lee Marshall, in his book Bob Dylan: The Never Ending Star, explains. “Dylan is the foundational figure in rock culture. Dylan’s shift to electric music brought to the mainstream the political authority and communal links of his folk past while his song-writing skills offered the exemplar of what could be achieved artistically within the new form.”
Balzac, who died at age 51, wrote 90 novels, novellas and major stories. His masterwork The Human Comedy filled 26 volumes. Picasso was similarly prolific, producing 50,000 works of art in his lifetime, including 1,885 paintings; 1,228 sculptures; 2,880 ceramics; 18,095 engravings; 6,112 lithographs; and approximately 12,000 drawings, as well as numerous linocuts, tapestries, and rugs, not to mention his letters, poetry and plays. Dylan’s output has been equally ceaseless, having recorded more than 600 original songs, 40 albums, plus paintings, drawings and sculpture. His performances have been an art form in themselves with more than 100 original concerts a year for more than 25 years.
Balzac’s influence was extensive. Marcel Proust, Émile Zola, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Eça de Queirós, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Gustave Flaubert, Benito Pérez Galdós, Marie Corelli, Henry James, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, and Italo Calvino, and philosophers such as Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx all cite Balzac’s influence. His simple story The Unknown Masterpiece influenced avant garde artists decades later, including Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso, who at one point lived in the house that is the setting for part one of the book, the very studio where Le Guernica was painted, his own masterwork.
Picasso’s influence is too pervasive to cite. All modern artists acknowledge a debt to him. A recent retrospective by the Metropolitan Museum of Art reveals the magnitude of Picasso’s influence.
Comparing Dylan to Gutenberg as I did in a recent blog entry may have been overstating the case, but there’s no denying that Dylan has been an significant force in contemporary culture these past fifty-plus years.
The Role of Muses
Balzac, Picasso and Dylan drew inspiration from their relationships with women. The Muse appears to have been most actively engaged when each was in an enlivening relationship. During his early career Balzac’s relationships with society women enabled him to gain a deep understanding of the interior landscape of women, knowledge which was not wasted on the aspiring author. The stories of Picasso’s muses are all part of the Picasso legend, woven into modern art history. Much of Dylan’s music details the same relational longings and anguish over estranged relationship. Though he’s gone to great lengths to keep his private life out of the public eye, he is a high profile person in an intensely media-driven world.
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A sixth characteristic of the three men is the manner in which their names stand alone, revealing their signatory power. Balzac. Picasso. Dylan.
Much more could be said, but the five notions are out there… How about you? Which of these qualities do you share? As Balzac once wrote, “It is easy to sit up and take notice. What is difficult is getting up and taking action.”
Originally published at pioneerproductions.blogspot.com in 2014. Updated in a few particulars for Medium
Illustrations, in order. (1) Balzac, public domain photo; (2) “Blowing in the Wind,” painting by the author; (3) photo of my copy of The Unknown Masterpiece, held together with rubber band; (4) photo of my copy of Picasso paintings at the Metropolitan in New York; (5) Picasso illustration for Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece, produced on 100th anniversary of the publication of this story, property of the Tweed Museum of Art.