I remember the first time I saw the tactile diagram of Ma Jolie by Pablo Picasso. It was at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. I was struck by the encounter. The simplicity of the black and white drawing brings into sharp focus the attempt by Picasso to push the boundaries of what is possible. The work seems eager to break out of the established mental modes of seeing art. Even then, it relies on the frame through which art had been viewed to ensure the viewer is ready to go on a new uncharted journey. The desire for independence … to break free… is what makes the work so fraught with tension and why it made a deep impression on me.
I am partial to art from the Modernism Movement because it allowed exploration of new forms of expression. The experimental nature of the art produced required new ways of seeing that had to consider multiple viewpoints which those from the Old Masters did not always allow. Even so, Ma Jolie is part of the thread in a long line from the Old Masters to Postmodernism. To appreciate why Cubism was a novel concept in its time requires an understanding of the art that came before. And so, it stands on the shoulders of the very works it sought to disrupt.
Ma Jolie, therefore, raises the age-old question of whether we can create anything radically new without knowledge of the old. Should a work of art be considered on its own merits, or does it exist in dialogue with works of art produced in the past? These questions were explored by T.S. Eliot in his seminal essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent.
Often, we celebrate an artist for the exciting new ways they express existing ideas with their craft. Whether Marlon Brando as the brooding, raging brute, Stanley Kowalski, in his stage debut of A Street Car Named Desire, or Njideka Akunyili and her collage paintings exploring issues of identity, space, and voice. We like to point out the distinct quality that separates the artist from their predecessors and puts them in a different league from their contemporaries. The thing is, when an artist rebels against an old movement or style, they acknowledge that tradition, and I dare say, venerate it.
These ideas have particular relevance today for someone like me who works in the tech industry, which thrives on the notion of innovation and disruption. It is easy to look at a product like Uber and marvel at how it has completely revolutionized transportation networks. It is also easy to forget that it builds upon early breakthroughs by DARPA, the advent of GPS by NASA, the opening up of the internet to civilians in the 90s, the role of AOL in enabling internet adoption among consumers, the proliferation of Google Maps, and the emergence of smartphones in the latter half of the 21st century.
Looking back, what I liked most about the tactile diagram of Ma Jolie was seeing the early process of a great work of art at its most bare, raw form. It’s like the private study before the exam. The quiet rigor of the daily practice of an athlete before the glory of the Olympic win. Later on, I got to see the painting of Ma Jolie. Though it was undecipherable, it did not convey as much complexity or tension as the tactile had. Seeing the tactile first gave me a better appreciation for a painting whose complexity was now masked in color.