I once got into an argument with a distinguished architect friend, in the middle of the cafeteria of the National Gallery of Art here in Washington, as to whether or not Pablo Picasso could draw well. He said that Picasso could not, and I took the opposite view. Another distinguished gentleman of my acquaintance would disagree with me, arguing that Picasso went in the direction he did with his art in part because he was not trained to draw very well. I suspect Roger Scruton would disagree with him, but then I am a fledgling in the world of commentary and so had best retire from the fray.
Jettisoning some aspects of the academic tradition in European drawing, painting, and sculpture at the beginning of the 20th century was not a bad thing. It was something like a secular theocracy, lambasting dissent and producing things that were considered “safe” and familiar. This was largely due to the fact that the art world had irrevocably changed. The center of the art world shifted from the guilds, or the individual master with their own atelier, who had been supported primarily by the Church and by princes, to middle-class academies funded, promoted, and patronized by middle-class people. This reflected the shift in economic and temporal power from the gilded thrones of palace and cathedral, to the tufted armchairs of the salon and conference room.
The problem of course is that modern art eventually went too far, abandoning the academic tradition of practice making perfect when it came to drawing, and then to painting and sculpture, altogether. Today we have contemporary artists such as Tracy Emin who laughably teach their art at the Royal Academy in London, and yet who cannot actually draw with anything approaching competence. And with our worship of relativism in the media and among elites, it is easier than ever to claim that you are a talented artist when you have no actual talent, since who would dare to say otherwise? Well, I would, for one, but then that is why you drop by this site from time to time, presumably.
That being said, visitors to the Detroit Institute of Arts this summer will have the chance to decide for themselves as the museum puts on the show, “Picasso and Matisse: The DIA’s Prints and Drawings”, looking at some of their holdings of works by these two artists. Many of Picasso’s better drawings are in the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, but this exhibition promises to display some interesting works from the midpoint of his career in particular. and it is hard to dislike the work of Henri Matisse, whatever you think of modern art, and the vibrant colors and shapes of his famous “Jazz” series, which continues to hold a tremendous influence over the work of artists and graphic designers today. Oh, and while you are there of course, you can check out a smaller exhibition, “Five Spanish Masterpieces”, featuring works by Picasso, Goya, Velázquez, El Greco, and Dalí. All five of those gentlemen, in my opinion, knew how to draw.