Most college art students divide into two camps when it comes to art history. They either love it or hate it. No one seems to think of it as merely okay. It should come as no surprise to anyone that I loved art history, but then I was always a student of history even before I became involved in the arts. It was my favourite subject in high school, the only class in which I was ever able to consistently get straight A's. I think the reason college art students divide over art history is because they also divide into two groups regarding art in general. There are the "thinkers" and the "doers." The "thinkers" know where they're coming from and where they want to go. The "doers" are the emotional, sensitive, inquisitive, hyperactive, intuitive ones who work in spurts, often with deep valleys between their creative "highs." When they are "up" they can turn out enormous quantities of astounding work, often startling even themselves with their creative insights. When they are "down" they work not at all, or struggle at best, often even becoming self-destructive, if not physically, then psychologically, harbouring deep uncertainties as to their own self-worth as artists. Studying art history, feasting upon great works of art of the past only tends to underline their own feelings of inadequacy.
Recently I mentioned the way one artist used art from the past as a sort of battery recharger to allow him to fall back, regroup, and then once more blast off in a totally new direction. I cited Picasso's Classical period as an example. This was not the only time Picasso went "back to basics," so to speak. From time to time during the 1950s and especially the early 1960s, Picasso delved into the past and came up with some pretty incredible pieces of work reflecting the influence of artists as diverse as Jacques-Louis David, Edouard Manet, Velázquez, and Gustave Courbet. In each case there was a re-articulation of the original in a distinctly Picasso style, borrowing here and there from Cubism, the Blue Period, Guernica, and quite a number of other motifs that were undeniably his own.
Though more colourful and fluid, there is a reflection of Guernica in Picasso's 1962 version of David's The Rape of the Sabines. He chose to study Manet's Dejeuner sur l'Herbe in his bluish, 1963 version of the two well-dressed French gentlemen dining on the lawn with their au naturale female guest. Even before these, he played Cubism against Velázquez in his own Las Meninas, painted in 1957. But probably his earliest foray into painting his own version of art history was his 1950 painting of Courbet's Young Girls on the Banks of the Seine. The oil on plywood painting is an intricately tangled web of fluid, geometric design as he weaves blues, whites, blacks, and greys of one lady's dress against the reds, yellows, and blacks of the other's. The faces are pure Picasso, profiles juxtaposed against full faces, his love of masks never far from the surface. But in this case, as in all the others, despite the distortions and his own artistic ingredients, the student of art history would take only a few seconds to identify his inspirations. It would seem that Picasso was both a "thinker" and a "doer."