SOUWIE ON . . . The Arts

Bull’s head, bicycle or both? Souwie reflects on the life of Pablo Picasso

The seat and handle bars of an old bicycle or the striking horns and powerful head of a bull – surely the two are incompatible? When I saw this piece for the first time in the Picasso museum in Malaga (the city of his birth), two things struck me almost immediately: it’s ridiculous simplicity and it’s sheer genius. This time next year, it will be half a century since the world lost the artistic genius that was Pablo Ruiz Picasso. So great is his influence on modern art that celebrations to mark his life and work, including anniversary exhibitions and retrospectives, have already begun across the globe. 

This so-called elf of a man, who left a string of wives, mistresses and muses in his thrall produced an incredible variety of work, both in terms of medium and conception, during the course of his life time. His Bull’s Head (1942) is just one such example and yet it is useful in understanding something of Picasso’s approach to his work. 

Walking home one day, so the story goes, Picasso saw an old bicycle seat and a pair of rusty handle bars thrown haphazardly together in a pile of discarded objects. Almost without conscious thought, he saw them together as the head and horns of a bull. All he had to do, he wrote to a friend, was weld them together. Yet he explained too, that it was important that the objects making up this Bull’s Head be easily identified as the parts of a bicycle. 

It is a metaphor of sorts and yet the two entities in question, surely have very little in common except for the fact that both begin with the letter ‘b’, in English anyway. What does such a direct comparison bring?  Does it undermine the power of the bull – traditionally, a symbol of strength and virility in Picasso’s native country? Or does it upgrade the modest mechanics of the bicycle to something animate? Perhaps it simply shows us that apparently unrelated things can be combined in new, unlikely ways and thus it serves as a celebration of creativity – the power of the human imagination. 

In many of his line drawings and sketches and some of his other sculptures, we see a similar desire to get to the heart of the matter – to reduce his subject to its essence. Picasso’s ability to do this in such a range of subjects – animate and inanimate is surely part of his genius. English Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, wrote in his Defence of Poetry that it “purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being”. Perhaps this is true of all great art, visual and verbal. It is certainly evident in the work and genius of Pablo Picasso.   Souwie Buis   September 2022

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