One Cannot Invent What Does Not Exist. The Genius of Invention Lies in Rediscovering What Has Been Lost, Forgotten, or Misunderstood

Pablo Picasso? Jacques Lassaigne? Mary Chamot? Playboy?

paint10Dear Quote Investigator: I came across the following statement attributed to the prominent artist Pablo Picasso:

A painter cannot paint what does not exist. He can only rediscover what has been lost, forgotten or misunderstood.

This is certainly a curious ontological outlook, but I have not been able to find a good citation. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: This statement was ascribed to Pablo Picasso in “Playboy” magazine in 1964, but QI believes this evidence was flawed. A full citation is given further below.

The earliest strong match found by QI appeared in the critical commentary accompanying a 1939 art book about the French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The critic was Jacques Lassaigne, and his words were translated from French to English by Mary Chamot. Lassaigne’s topic was invention and not painting. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

It is obvious that one cannot invent what does not exist. The genius of invention lies in rediscovering what has been lost, forgotten or misunderstood: scientific theory teaches us that no energy is lost in the world, but that it changes.

Interestingly, the commentary by Lassaigne included another passage about the different motivations of artists and the diverse milieus of creation. The highlighted phrase within the following excerpt was later reassigned to Picasso in 1964: 2

Are the tortuous bye-ways and secret experiences necessary and productive? I think it is a question of intention: they are valuable and enriching only so far as they are not made to oblige: art can certainly not be born in artifice. For the rest, in plastic values we can only judge by results, not by intentions.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1964 “Playboy” magazine published dozens of quotations spread across multiple pages under the title: “The Wisdom of Pablo Picasso” with the subtitle: “the world’s foremost living artist puts forth a credo for creativity”. Five sayings in the set have been highlighted below. These sayings were not adjacent in the “Playboy” article. Also, the numbering scheme was added for convenience and was not present in the original text: 3

1) Art is the best possible introduction to the culture of the world.

2) Art! I love it for the buried hopes, the garnered memories, the tender feelings it can summon at a touch.

3) Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.

4) Art is valuable and enriching only so far as it is not born in artifice.

5) A painter cannot paint what does not exist. He can only rediscover what has been lost, forgotten or misunderstood.

In 1972 “European Erotic Art” by Francis Carr included a lengthy quotation ascribed to Picasso. In fact, the passage was really a concatenation of the five quotations listed above: 4

Pablo Picasso: Art is the best possible introduction to the culture of the world. I love it for the buried hopes, the garnered memories, the tender feelings it can summon at a touch. It washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life. It is valuable and enriching only if it is not born in artifice. A painter cannot paint what does not exist; he can only rediscover what has been lost, forgotten or misunderstood.

The passage can now be broken apart and analyzed using the numbers above. Expression number 1 was not particularly original or compelling. Expression number 2 was examined in the QI entry available here. A version can be traced back to a quotation about music in an 1831 novel by Letitia Elizabeth Landon. Expression number 3 was explored in the QI entry available here. An instance can be traced back to a German saying about music written by Berthold Auerbach in 1864. Expressions 4 and 5 were discussed above; they can be traced back to statements written by Jacques Lassaigne in French that were translated into English in 1939.

Hence, the passage was a composite of perceptions from at least three different thinkers and commentators. The connection to Picasso was very weak because the “Playboy” article provided no supporting citations. Did Picasso engage in intellectual plagiarism? Was the article a hoax or a stunt? QI does not know.

In conclusion, the statements in the 1939 citation should be credited to Jacques Lassaigne via the translation of Mary Chamot. QI believes that the quotation under analysis was derived directly or indirectly from Lassaigne’s words.

Image Notes: Photo of a painting of a bison in the cave at Altamira in Spain. Image released into the public domain by Rameessos. Cropped image of Gua Tewet Tree of Life cave painting. The original image appeared in the 1999 book “Borneo, Memory of the Caves”. The photographer Luc-Henri Fage placed the image in the public domain as recorded on the Wikipedia website.

(Great thanks to Andrew Malton and Mardy Grothe whose inquiries led QI initiate this investigation which grew to encompass other quotations. The question above was formulated by QI. Quotation expert Mardy Grothe’s website is available here. Special thanks to Professor Charles Doyle for help verifying the 1972 citation. Many thanks to kind librarians of the Swisher Library of Jacksonville University for help verifying the 1939 citation.)

Notes:

  1. 1939, Toulouse Lautrec by Jacques Lassaigne, Translated from French to English by Mary Chamot, Quote Page 28, The Hyperion Press, Paris. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1939, Toulouse Lautrec by Jacques Lassaigne, Translated from French to English by Mary Chamot, Quote Page 29, The Hyperion Press, Paris. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1964 January, Playboy, Volume 11, Number 1, The Wisdom of Pablo Picasso: The World’s Foremost Living Artist Puts Forth a Credo for Creativity, Start Page 96, Quote Page 97 and 98, HMH Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1972, European Erotic Art by Francis Carr, Quote Page 17, Published by Luxor Press, London. (Verified with scans; thanks to Charles Doyle and the University of Georgia library system)