Art: Fun for your Brain

July 5, 2011 at 10:42 pm in Books & Entertainment by Sarah Swenson

I just returned from the beautiful city of Portland, Oregon, where I gave a presentation at the Mensa Annual Gathering entitled, Help Me, I’m Gifted!

As part of the presentation, I hoped to offer participants the opportunity to look at what might be considered serious art without all the trappings of art historical accuracy, museum settings, or the impending threat of a quiz.

The first painting I showed was by Pablo Picasso, a Spanish painter who produced this particular work in Paris in 1903. I provided a minimal amount of background information, similar in amount and style to what you see if you visit a museum and read the card accompanying a work of art: called The Old Guitarist in the United States, and on exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute, this painting is also commonly referred to as The Man with the Blue Guitar.

The Mensa audience quickly suspected the guitarist was blind. Why? Look at his eyes. They are closed tightly, in a sort of way that gives the impression of being permanent. And surely enough, Picasso originally called this painting Le Vieux Guitariste Aveugle. I don’t know why we dropped the word blind when we started calling it The Old Guitarist in English.

Participants in the Mensa group noticed one aspect of the painting after another: the tattered clothing, the odd position, the elongated limbs, the utter sadness portrayed, and — the fact that the only thing in the painting that is not painted blue is the guitar itself.

So why do people call this painting The Man with the Blue Guitar, I asked?

Because of the musical sounds that guitar would make. Because the whole feeling of the painting is so sad. Because Picasso was blue when he painted it. Because I’m blue looking at it.

They had fun with it. They didn’t behave as if there were a right answer, or a correct interpretation. Blue Period, Schmeriod. No one was judging.

The fact is that in the past, the only people who’ve pointed out to me that the guitar is not blue were children, who are generally better at pointing out the Emperor’s New Clothes than overeducated adults tend to be.

I showed another painting, a city scape by Giorgio de Chirico.

This painting evoked such good humored response that when the group felt finished with it, they asked me to show the third painting, which I had stated I’d leave out in the interest of time.

So I showed it at the end.



It was Banquet Still Life, an oil by Abraham van Beyeren, 1653-55. It hangs in the permanent collection of the Seattle Art Museum. Painted during the peak of Holland’s Golden Age, it shows the remains of some sort of a feast.

In a word: Pronk. This is a great Afrikaans word that means showing off.

The Mensa group had fun with this one, too. What is the curtain in the background? The artist is saying: Look what I can do! All the fancy surfaces and textures! The silver pot seems particularly well articulated. What is that stuff in the bowl in front of it?

The final slide was the capper: a close up of that silver pot. It shows a reflection of the artist himself. Pronk, indeed!

Have fun with art.

It teases your brain if you look at it freshly, barring any actual knowledge you may have about the painting, the content, the historical period, or the artist. Just let your mind wander. You will see things you’ve never seen before. And you know what? That’s perfectly wonderful.

We are taught to take art so seriously. The problem with that kind of thinking is that it creates haves and have nots, leaving out everyone who doesn’t study art history. It can make you feel as if you don’t have the right to an opinion or an impression, as in I don’t know anything about art. I’m here to tell you you don’t have to know anything about art in order to have an opinion, and to have fun with it. Even if you are encyclopedically informed, feel free to let your mind roam once in a while. Why hold back?

Do you honestly think the artist was thinking Serious Art and Art Criticism and This is My Ultra-Realistic Period when he pronked everyone by painting his own portrait into a commissioned work?

And who’s to say Picasso had enough money to buy other colors during his Blue Period? He was a poor artist. Maybe all he could afford was blue paint!

Related Content

What would you write in a letter to your daughter? One of the things Kristine and I recommend in our workshops is to write a letter to your daughter. Writing a lett...
Creative book club names LUV some of the book club names I've been privileged to meet: Cozy Slippers Book Club, Ladies Guilty Pleasures Book Club, Pulpwood Queen...
Just Because Art Is Fun Doesn’t Mean It’s E... I direct a program called the Jeremiah Project which is a creative arts program for at-risk middle school age students.  Students will often expr...