Inspiration has many faces, and sometimes it can leave you spellbound to the point that you see no reason to do anything else, because you feel the overwhelming feeling that everything’s been done already. It’s why I’m wary of museums.
Of course it’s a matter of perspective, depending on the individual and the choices they make after the encounter. For me, visiting the Prado Museum in Madrid kicked open the door to a new universe of possibility; and though it had a mostly positive effect, my own creativity was slow to get cooking again. As I look back on it now, it’s easier to understand why.
For one thing, seeing these paintings can totally recalibrate one’s understanding of how to tell a story.
At the time, I was mostly into words. Writing was the most direct line to speaking my mind. However, in the span of a couple days, I’d take my first real dive into the works of Salvador Dalí, Francisco De Goya, Valesquez, El Greco, Picasso and Bosch. After that, though I didn’t quite realize it, I’d come to re-evaluate every tool at my disposal and it led to a creative standstill. This happened before I even set foot in Paris, into the work of the French impressionists, or in Budapest where I heard my first symphony. I was screwed.
It was one of those experiences that leave you lost and delirious yet somehow enormously gratified because you understand what’s possible. It’s an exciting feeling, albeit an overwhelming one. It would take a long time for me to touch down again.
The feeling is one of limitless latitude and longitude.
On the one hand, there were paintings by Bosch, enormous canvases depicting scenes of decadence or chaos, vast landscapes of a hundred or so different figures, painted with extraordinary detail, each interacting with one another or maybe standing alone. Every scene was its own story. A scene within a scene. Every figure and interaction was like a verse within a song, none more important than the other, each coming together seamlessly to tell a larger story.
On the other hand, there were portraits by Goya and El Greco, strikingly simple in their composition even though every detail felt significant. The clothes they wore, the placement of their hands, dark shadows looming in the background. The look on their face, their eyes, maybe their smile if they were smiling at all. Every detail was worth a deeper observation, and in that way, these seemingly simple visions were not at all different from Bosch’s epic illustrations.
Then there was the matter of style. Each of these people had their signature way of communicating. El Greco’s dark, yet vividly contrasting colors or his generally elongated figures gave the images a feeling that they were still happening, that the characters stood right in front of me, no more or less alive than they were at the time of their creation. Meanwhile, Goya’s use of lighter contrasts and more blending and shadow gave his images a blurry and dreamlike feel, whether the images were a depiction of reality or surreal images of monsters and witches, of giants walking the earth.
Still, Picasso and Dalí were really the first to show me the effectiveness of style in an artists’ work. I could relate to Dalí, and his consistent use of that flat, desolate, desert-like landscape inspired by his hometown of Cadaques. In some way, it felt like a way of saying “this is where it begins and ends, in the land where I’m from.” It’s a vast horizon, containing a collection of scenes all down the line, large in the front, infinitesimally small in the back, and yet somehow, like the Bosch paintings, no scene was more detailed than the other, or more important than the other, despite their relative size. And so unlike Bosch, Dalí seems to be making a greater statement on perspective and time.
Picasso offers a broader testimony to the effectiveness of style in the sense that he employed so many to begin with, from the realistic depictions of his youth, to painting only in shades of blue, or pinks and reds; to the creation of cubism, distorting images in such a way that somehow made them feel more accurate than a photograph, those fiercely abstract images that would become his trademark.
Yet the bigger trademark amounts to more than just finding different ways to tell a story. It’s an ongoing dedication to instinct, a fearlessness in trusting feeling over thought, and embracing change. He once said that art is a lie which tells the truth. After I saw his work, and traced the long evolution of his style, I felt I knew what he meant.
People, places and things don’t look anything like the way he depicts them, but that’s the case with any work of art. Objective reality is not at play because it’s the artist’s perception of it that matters, the impulse to project oneself onto a collective experience as a means of declaring one’s existence.
It’s what compels anyone to pick up a brush in the first place. Or a pen. Or a guitar.
“The essential thing is…to express the bolt of lightning one senses upon contact with a thing. The function of the artist is not to translate an observation but to express the shock of the object on his nature.”