ArtWeekend

The Everyday Madness of Picasso’s “Acrobat on a Ball”

What a nimble feat of balance and strength it is to build a dream.

Pablo Picasso, “Acrobat on a Ball” (1905), oil on canvas, 147 x 95 cm, The Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, Moscow (image via pushkinmuseum.art)

One must be mad to believe that we can make the world better, that we can save humanity or even a single life. It is unreasonable, irrational. But I am for that madness.

—Elie Wiesel

PARIS — “[L]ong before the circus comes to town, its most notable performances have already been given.” This line from E.B. White’s poignant essay, “Ring of Time,” spotlights backstage life, in which a teenage girl, in a practice session, casually stands on the back of a horse as it circles a ring. Reflecting the behind-the-scenes dignity and grace of the commonplace, Picasso’s “Acrobat on a Ball” (1905), at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris (Picasso. Blue and Rose, September 18–January 6, 2019), does this, too.

Ironically, disparity can create unity. In “Acrobat on a Ball,” direct differences establish direct relationships. Don’t just sit there, she suggests, do something. Don’t just do something, he offers, sit there. Both matter. Moment by moment, we choose what to do and how to do it. Our “whats” and “hows” shape (or misshape) the core of our identity and the identities of those closest to us. Do we build amity or do we build walls?

We see him. We watch her. Picasso’s canvas celebrates this against that: youth and maturity; front and back; work and play; form and content; the sphere and the cube. The softly lit girl looks fragile, petite, ephemeral. The harshly lit man looks muscular, grand, grounded. She is sky. Or water. He is earth, or rock. The acrobat’s toes never touch the ground; the circus pharaoh’s foot is planted, as he is planted on his bare-bones throne. He’s not goin’ anywhere; any minute she’s gonna hop off the private world of her sphere. Actually, it’s not really her sphere alone. Through overlapping, she shares it with him (at least visually). Only the invisible globe implied by her Atlas-like pose, arms bent and hands raised above her head, is just hers. Or is it? Imagining that globe coupled with the ball below her feet, she becomes a kind of upended barbell, strengthening her connection to the weightlifter.

The girl and the man, along with the family in the distance, embody unremarkable routines of lingering consequence. Is the mother wondering what dreams the daughter at her side, or the infant in her arms, will create for themselves? Will they fulfill those dreams? Did she fulfill hers?

What a feat, to build a dream that endures. I imagine the girl on the ball, years from now, standing beside children of her own, or sitting on a box, resting her muscles after an afternoon of lifting weights or bending iron bars.

Looking at “Acrobat” during a re-read of my son Adam’s novel, We Can Save Us All (The Unnamed Press, 2018), and shortly after attending the opening reception in New York of two murals painted by my daughter Laini, I am moved by Picasso’s familial exchange. Wordless conversations excite his carefully built composition. A related exchange happens between the mother and daughter in White’s essay about the observation of a workaday challenge. When a cherished “other” is being observed, it’s especially satisfying. Routines of creative development are inspired by labor, love, and a striving for excellence. I’ve watched such actions unfold countless times in the lives of my children and in the lives of countless others.

It never gets old. Nor do the visual exchanges in Picasso’s painting, like the right angles between the standing girl and seated man, that draw them together. His boxy physique and sharply angled left leg mirror her left arm. Similarly, his blue trunks, flowing into the cloth beneath, connect him to the girl’s sky-colored leotard. And there is the red bow or flower clipped to her hair that connects her to the pensive, perceptive, protective man’s earth-colored shirt and tights and to her little sister(?) in the distance.    

Shortly, the desolate setting of “Acrobat” will be deserted once again. But for now, a distant horse marks the gap between Picasso’s two performers. The horse echoes the ease they share and cements their bond.

In “Acrobat,” a family breathes the absences between performances. Except for the crunch of sand and a few faraway barks and neighs, there’s silence. Smells of popcorn, lions, sweat, and danger don’t fill the “middle-of-nowhere” air. One artist nurtures her skills. The other takes a break from his. Crowds departed and tents dismantled, it’s the lull between moments. 

In “The Ring of Time,” White claims that we have to “catch the circus unawares to experience its full impact and share its gaudy dream.” It’s a slow, silent dream that demands “improving a shining ten minutes in the diligent way all serious artists seize free moments to hone the blade of their talent and keep themselves in trim,” like a painter drawing in a sketchbook.

In their unity and contrasts, the 113-year-old 13-year-old and her Samsonian counterpart balance the off-kilter with the grounded. There are no tricks or dangers. No juggling of objects set ablaze, or dodging knives while teetering atop a ball. No fancy makeup or costumes. The plainness of the scene is “Acrobat’s” greatness.

In-between moments go unnoticed every day. But they can embody a glorious madness that just might save us.

Picasso. Blue and Rose continues at the Musée d’Orsay (1 Rue de la Légion d’Honneur, Paris) through January 6, 2019.

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