My writing partner Ripu and I went to Potsdam to see the Picasso exhibition at Museum Barberini in Potsdam. It was the first time we ever took a trip out of Berlin together. Even it was just going to be a day trip, the prospect of spending a day with her, seeing art, talking about art, excited me.
Art is a sensitive and yet slightly addictive topic between us. It is almost as if we have a love-hate relationship with art. Our conversations always evolve around a certain writer, a book, or a film we just watched or read, but at the same time, when it comes to speaking about our own work or giving advice to the other person’s work, we’ve been very shy to regard ourselves as artists, and our work as art.
I remember I even made a bold declaration to her one day, most likely over some pho soup I always ordered at the Vietnamese place we frequented, “Ripu, I don’t understand why people always call themselves artists. A lot of the artists I’ve worked with were just egoistic human beings. I will never call myself an artist. I’d rather see myself as a good craftsman, that I am really good at the craft of something.” In her motherly attitude, she replied, “darling, I see what you mean, but artists do see the world differently. There’s an artist in you. You are not an artist, but you are an artist to be. We are writers to be.” Deep down, we both knew, that I was playing this childish game with her where I would deny the artist in me, only so that the “motherist” (a term she invented) in her would affirm to me, “darling, you are an artist.”
On our way to Museum Barberini, we spontaneously picked up this nagging subject again. Potsdam’s lavish mid-day sun shined on our bare chests and shoulders. Her white dress fluttered in the summer breeze. I told her that I had finished reading the book she recommended, Patti Smith’s Just Kids. “You know me well. This is exactly the book I needed to gather courage for what I am doing right now.” I told her. The book and our candid discussion of the book was exactly what we needed.
The magic of Just Kids was that Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe were “just kids.” They were determined to be no more, and no less. One of the biggest difference between adults and kids, in my opinion, is the former’s need of affirmation from others in who they are, or what they want to be, whereas the latter just instinctually need what they need, and the outside world only gets to decide whether to grant that need, or not. In this case, they needed to be artists.
“I had no proof that I had the stuff to be an artist, though I hungered to be one.” Being an artist was a primal instinct of Patti Smith and Mapplethorpe, just like hunger. Some say that the memoir was about Patti Smith and Mapplethorpe’s painful platonic love for each other, despite their inability to align love with lust, or align lust with love, but I understood the book to be, rather, a declaration of love to art through the description of a beautiful creative partnership, however flawed. Patti’s love for art and her love for Robert refused to be each other. Or perhaps, Patti and art refused to be each other.
It was on our way to see the show of Picasso’s late work at Museum Barberini that we found out, that we also needed not to hide our hunger.
Ripu shared with me her research on Picasso. She told me that Picasso actually dropped out of Madrid’s Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, which was then Spain’s most prestigious art school. In Ripu’s words, Picasso “thought that only those who cannot be creative would want to be taught how to paint and draw.” So he dropped out of art school out of a lack of interest in a formal artistic training.
Sometimes things in this world have a rather obscure schedule. In my case, and probably also in Ripu’s, if I am allowed to speak for her, our conviction not to be an artist for perhaps over a decade was converted to the hunger to be one, just in a day. We admired Patti Smith’s naivety and self-assertiveness in her early twenties in being an artist, not becoming one, not trying to be one, but always already being. In Just Kids, Patti didn’t show any interest in an art education. When Robert returned to Pratt to study art, she was just happy being a supportive partner for him by working at the bookstores. Someone in the family had to earn the dough. But she was always already an artist, in this case, most definitely a hungry one, just by working at the bookstores in New York. By refusing to be each other, with Robert, and with art.
In the spirit of Patti Smith, we continued our adventure that day, immersed ourselves into the late works of Picasso, allowing ourselves to imagine how to find a muse in a woman for twenty years. I started to believe that beauty didn’t lie in the muse, but in the eyes of the beholder. The curious eyes of the beholder had accomplished the impossible task of finding refreshing beauty in a human being with whom he shared his everyday mundane life for twenty years.
At the end of our adventure in Potsdam, we were both exhausted from the visual and intellectual stimulation we received through the day, from Picasso’s works, and from our own conversations about being an artist. On our way leaving Museum Barberini, the corner of my eyes were caught by the late afternoon sunlight and the oblique shadow cast by it, which created beautiful intricate geometric shapes on the architecture. I was mesmerized by the view, and was overwhelmed by an urge to leave the museum and return to the real world. Sometimes visiting museum can be such an isolating experience. I would much rather sit in the sun, next to the water, watch ducks swimming by, and ask Ripu what we are doing next week.
This piece performed in an Audio Visual Journal format. https://youtu.be/TiA_Y4qZOrg