Be Cézanne, not Picasso

When it comes to art, I have two basic rules: 1) It has to look nice and 2) I’m not paying more than $60 for it.

This makes me uniquely unqualified to appreciate high art.

We were at the Dallas Museum of Art a few years back, and we were looking at a lot of really nice paintings and sculptures. The people in those paintings generally looked like people and the objects generally looked like objects. I saw a picture of a ship coming to shore that really spoke to me, conveying the artist’s profound message, namely, “This is a ship coming to shore.” Good stuff. Art I could really relate to.

Then we came to the contemporary section.

For those of you unfamiliar with the distinctions of art, the contemporary period is generally defined by critics as, “the period in which people were taking a lot of recreational LSD.”

One of the exhibits in the contemporary section was a lit fluorescent tube stuck in a hay bale. Another was a room littered with shredded pieces of black felt and a sign explaining that the artist had spent hours carefully arranging each piece. These pieces spoke to me as well, although the message was generally, “S… someone made this? On purpose?”

You might be wondering where I’m going with all this—and quite frankly, I’m starting to wonder as well—but my point (I think) is that high art and I don’t usually see eye-to-eye. This is important because today I want to talk about two renowned artists. I think these artists embody a fascinating lesson, but if I’m being honest, I look at a lot of their work and I think, “Hey, you gave it your best shot, but we can’t all be good at everything.”

Then I look at the prices their paintings fetch at auctions and I think, “But hey, what do I know?”

In other words: I may be an uncultured Philistine incapable of appreciating most high art, but I can appreciate that others appreciate it, and I’m hopeful that counts for something.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about Pablo Picasso and Paul Cézanne.

* * *

Picasso and Cézanne were both artists who changed the world of painting forever—Cézanne with his Post-Impressionism and Picasso with his Cubism and Surrealism. Both honed their craft in Paris. Both produced works that today are worth hundreds of millions of dollars—and yet, both were as different as night and day in their approach to painting.

Malcolm Gladwell, a columnist for New York Times, wrote a fascinating article contrasting late bloomers with young prodigies—Cézanne and Picasso among them, respectively. Picasso, Gladwell writes, began his career with “blindingly obvious” talent, while the young Cézanne “couldn’t draw.”

That fundamental difference affected how each artist viewed the entire process of creating art. For Picasso, “To search means nothing in painting. … I have never made trials or experiments.” His different styles, he said, “must not be considered as an evolution or as steps toward an unknown ideal of painting.”

Picasso knew what he wanted to paint, and he knew how he wanted to paint it, so he did. For him, it was as simple as that. For Cézanne, it was less simple. He had the vision, but lacked the natural talent. His art was a journey, a progression, with each attempt bringing him closer to his “unknown ideal.”

“I seek,” he said, “in painting.”

* * *

When it comes to your Christian walk, which one are you?

Are you Picasso, confidently equipped to handle everything you set out to do and uninterested in improving your technique? Or are you Cézanne, taking hours to consider the best way to tackle a single brush stroke and slashing your canvases to ribbons when they fail to capture your vision?

When I look at Picasso and Cézanne, I see two different ways of looking at life—that is, either feeling confident about our skill or feeling confident about where we’re headed. Picassos do what comes naturally, never giving much thought to refining their abilities, while Cézannes push forward, making each new step an attempt to master the next skill that’s eluding them.

Which approach do you think is best suited to the calling God places before us?

I think it’s no surprise that I’m in Cézanne’s corner on this one. I don’t think Christians get to be Picassos—not spiritually, anyway. None of us start off with everything we need to finish the job we’ve been tasked with completing. There are no spiritual prodigies to whom Godly character comes naturally and flawlessly.

If there were, we wouldn’t have scriptures telling us that “the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be” (Romans 8:7). We wouldn’t have scriptures explaining that “a righteous man may fall seven times and rise again” (Proverbs 24:16). And we certainly wouldn’t have scriptures that say, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

Sometimes, though, in spite of those verses, we convince ourselves that we need to be Picasso anyway. That we need to get it right on the first try or else we’re a failure.

But that’s not how it works. Spiritually speaking, God designed us to be Cézannes, not Picassos—not young prodigies, but old masters who wrestle with every brush stroke, knowing in our hearts that every stroke, every painting, every frustrating and inadequate attempt brings us that much closer to our intended destination.

Paul (the apostle, not the painter) knew that feeling. It comes bleeding through his epistle to the Romans: “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice” (Romans 7:19). Paul knew who he wanted to be, but so often he found the same frustrating truth you and I encounter on our own spiritual journeys—he wasn’t there yet. It’s why he cried out in frustration a few verses later, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24).

* * *

Christ offers us deliverance, but it’s not a switch we can flip or a button we can push. It’s a path we have to travel, one step at a time.

It’s okay not to be perfect right now. Perfection is your destination, not where you’re expected to be this very moment. Your next brush stroke is going to be imperfect. And the one after that. And the one after that.

But the imperfection isn’t the point. The point is that with each stroke—with each decision, each word, each action in your pursuit of Godly, righteous character—you’re getting closer. Closer to the “unknown ideal” Picasso scoffed at; closer to growing up “in all things into Him who is the head—Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).

Remember, we’ve been tasked with creating something beautiful, too—the temple of God. The foundation was laid a long time ago, but now “let each one take heed how he builds on it. … Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it” (1 Corinthians 3:10, 12-13).

We don’t come into this life equipped to add something beautiful to God’s temple—but in time, we’ll get there. Little by little, we’ll refine the skills we need to make a meaningful contribution to God’s masterpiece. If we let Him refine us through the trials and frustrations we face in this life, we’ll emerge closer and closer to perfection every time.

Cézanne sought in painting. We must seek in living.

* * *

Here’s another fun fact about Picasso and Cézanne—they each produced their most valuable works at different points in their lives. Economist David Galenson compared the auction prices paid for the two artists’ paintings and found, according to Gladwell, “A painting done by Picasso in his mid-twenties was worth … an average of four times as much as a painting done in his sixties. For Cézanne, the opposite was true. The paintings he created in his mid-sixties were valued fifteen times as highly as the paintings he created as a young man” (emphasis added).

Picasso got different. Cézanne got better.

At the end of his life, the apostle Paul—the same Paul who confided in the Romans about his unending struggle against his human nature—was able to tell Timothy, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

Your best work is still ahead of you, and every step you take is bringing you that much closer to it.

Being Picasso is overrated.

Be Cézanne.

Until next time,

P.S. One more fun fact: Picasso and Cézanne both created some of the most valuable paintings in the world. Picasso painted more items on that list, but in April 2011, the Royal Family of Qatar bought Cézanne’s The Card Players for around $250 million or so—the highest known price ever paid for a painting. That distinction is now held by Willem de Kooning’s Interchange, which sold for around $300 million in September 2015. It looks like someone ran into a wall at high speeds while carrying a bucket of paint, which only goes to reinforce my earlier assertion that I don’t understand art.

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