It upset my sense of balance, whenever I voiced this opinion, to leave out the visual arts. I would make a triad by including Rembrandt, while knowing deep down that, although Rembrandt is stupendous, he is not on the level of the other two. While Rembrandt’s paintings and drawings do synthesize the human condition and the universal – a synthesis which, when we find it, we call beauty – they do not range across the spectrum of human emotions and intimations as does the work of Shakespeare or Bach.
You may scoff, but having recently seen some of Picasso’s less familiar work, instead of just the permanent collection warhorses – a show in London of pieces he did in Antibes and last year’s sculpture exhibit at MOMA – it occurred to me that Picasso probably is the third in my trinity of unimaginable geniuses.
We’re too close to Picasso to see it, of course. Three hundred years after Shakespeare and a century after Bach, the early Romantics, busy discarding classical traditions but not yet effected by incoming restraints (the 19th century’s rapturous gentility), were open to recognizing that Shakespeare was not just another Elizabethan playwright and Bach not just another northern baroque composer.
Shakespeare was “discovered” slowly – first by the Germans, the sturm und drang writers, in a search for genuine folk artists. Bach was “discovered” in one swell foop, with Mendelssohn’s performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829. Someday our Picasso – that sly little dynamo of modern art – will become only a figure of biography. Then – possibly when the culture is going through a transition of some sort – someone in the visual arts will take a fresh look at Picasso and realize that, taken all together, his work presents the same unimaginably comprehensive compendium of the human made universal as do the plays and poetry of Shakespeare and the music of Bach.