Discover more from SatPost by Trung Phan
Picasso’s most famous work
And the limits of AI art.
Thanks for subscribing to SatPost.
I just wrapped up a trip to Spain and — between comically large plates of Iberian ham — took a bunch of notes. I wanted to share a few that stood out, including my first time seeing Picasso’s Guernica painting.
Also this week:
I found the world’s best dessert in Portugal
Minions was the perfect viral storm
So many dumb memes
Picasso, Guernica and AI art
Guernica is probably Picasso’s most famous work. And considered by many art critics as the most famous anti-war art piece.
It’s a 25 ft x 11 ft oil painting on canvas that depicts the 1937 bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.
The town was targeted by Nazi bombers at the request of the fascist Spanish Nationalists lead by Franco. With the town’s men off to battle, most of the hundreds of bombing victims were women and children.
Picasso’s painting was made in dreary black, white and grey colors. And he interprets the events with a screaming woman, dead baby, anguished horse and stern bull.
While the canvas itself is striking, the story behind it is even more so.
In January 1937, the Spanish Republic — which was fighting the fascists — commissioned Picasso to create art work that would be displayed at the World Fair in Paris, where he was living. He was paid 150,000 Francs (~$150k in today’s dollars).
Picasso initially struggled with an idea but knew what he had to do after the Guernica bombing on April 26th, 1937. The 50-year old artist completed his incredible oil canvas in only 35 days.
While “Guernica” wasn’t a hit at the Paris Fair, it was toured around the continent and became a protest symbol against European fascists.
The tour touched down in New York in October 1939, shortly after Germany’s invasion of Poland kicked off World War II. The painting was sent around the US to raise awareness and funds.
Picasso instructed the Americans to hold onto the painting until Spain returned to a democracy. In 1981 — 8 years after Picasso’s death — “Guernica” was shipped to Madrid. It now lives at the Reina Sofia Museum.
I saw “Guernica” last week. As a lifelong history student, I was geeking out hard. I’d read various takes on the symbolism. Some believe the speared horse represents the death of Spanish fascists, while the Republic — as the bull — looks on. Others think it’s the opposite.
Either way, this is what the master has to say about symbolism in Guernica: “this bull is a bull and this horse is a horse… If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning.“
I read that quote after leaving the museum. My first thought was “damn, I knew I was overthinking it”. The second was “this is the reason AI art will never replace human art”.
On the second point, “Guernica” is all about the story and the meaning we do give it. We care because of who made it (Picasso), why it was made (at the behest of the Republican Spanish government to protest fascism) and where it’s been (toured around Europe and America before returning to a democratic Spain).
Picasso has drawn many horses and many bulls (both popular Spanish symbols). None matter as much as the ones in Guernica.
A few days after visiting the Reina Sofia, I saw the latest round of AI-generated art by OpenAI’s DALL-E 2. Previous iterations mimicked paintings and digital art based on text prompts, including “Picasso-style” images…
…but the newest stuff is crazy: photographer Michael Green created photo realistic renderings of people’s faces based on techniques of past photographers (Green used a version of DALL-E 2 that is not publicly available).
It’s insanely realistic:
We’re basically at the point where AI art is indistinguishable from human art. But none of these works have a truly compelling story, let alone one that compares to Picasso’s work.
Here’s one more incredible Guernica nugget:
In occupied Paris, a Gestapo officer who had barged his way into Picasso’s apartment pointed at a photo of the mural, Guernica, asking: ‘Did you do that?’
‘No,’ Picasso replied, ‘you did’.
The story. That’s what makes art great and important. And human.
For more interesting business and tech content every Saturday, subscribe to the SatPost newsletter below:
3 more things from my trip
Gaudi: Speaking of stories, I went to Barcelona for the first time and was absolutely blown away by Antoni Gaudi’s architecture. He created dozens of structures (parks, homes, cathedrals, commercial buildings) around the city. Seven of the creations are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Born in 1852, Gaudi had a keen interest in architecture from an early age. When he graduated architecture school, the program’s director dropped this legendary quote: “I do not know if we have awarded this degree to a madman or to a genius; only time will tell.”
Gaudi’s most famous work is the Sagrada Família cathedral (“Holy Family”). It’s the most wildly detailed structure I’ve ever seen (just jawdropping).
Anyways, Gaudi spent the final 43 years of his life working on it. 43 years. And all he did was work, living like a monk. A normal lunch was lettuce dipped in milk and when he died — in a tram accident in 1926 — people found him wearing cloth held together by four pins as underwear.
The Sagrada is still not finished. The project pulls in $30m a year from visitors to keep construction going (based on Gaudi notes and wooden models). It’s supposed to be done in 2030. Here is me and my poorly shaven facial hair admiring the scenes:
I’m definitely going to write more about Gaudi (email me your stories, too).
The greatest dessert ever: Before rolling into Spain, my family did a short pitstop in Lisbon. While there, I was introduced to the most incredible dessert.
No, it’s not the egg tart pastry. It’s called the prego, which is a thinly-sliced beef sandwich grilled with garlic. When I was offered a prego after a big seafood meal, I thought it was a joke. Here was the exchange with my server:
SERVER: Would you like a prego for dessert?
ME: You mean a steak sandwich?
ME: Is this a f**ing delicious joke?
SERVER: No, and please stop cussing in front of your 4-year old boy.
ME: Sorry. I’ll get 9 of them.
I ate it with some mustard and haven’t stopped thinking about it since. (Side note: According to internet research, the reason Portuguese folk eat steak sandwiches after seafood meals is because the seafood is too light to soak up all the alcohol that typically accompanies dinner. It’s very logical.)
Spain’s messed up time zone: Spanish culture is known for late lunches and late dinners. Combined with siestas (aka afternoon naps), the entire cocktail is not great for productivity. One reason for these habits, Spain is in the WRONG TIME ZONE (this is also why I had so many Aperol Spritzes).
In 1940, Spanish dictator Franco put the country’s time zone in line with Germany (to curry favor with Hitler and the Nazis). Per NPR, Spain is “geographically in line with Britain, Portugal and Morocco [but] its clocks are on the same time zone as countries as far east as Poland and Hungary.”
Over the decades, the government has floated plans to change time zones…but it hasn’t been done yet.
Links and memes
Minions: The Rise of Gru: My latest Bloomberg article is about the animated film, which pulled a record haul for the July 4th box office opening weekend ($109m). For the uninitiated, there’s been a craze of mostly teen males rolling 20-30 people deep to watch the movie while wearing suits. The stunt blew up on TikTok (and other socials). How? It was a combination of smart marketing, the perfect IP (little frickin’ Minions) and a TikTok-manufactured song.
Banksy: Here’s a contemporary example of “art is about the story”. Back in 2013, Banksy had an old man set up a booth and sell the legendary artist’s prints for $60 on the streets of NY. But no one realized it was Banksy’s work (which typically go for millions). To be fair, I woulda said “nah” too…but damn that hurts.
“Will VC produce fewer home runs in the future?”: Interesting post from Noah Smith that looks at top tech US IPOs since Facebook went public in 2012. Zuck Daddy’s company is worth $400B+ but the largest tech firms since are much smaller: ServiceNow (~$100B), Airbnb (~$60B) and Uber ($40B). SpaceX ($130B) and Stripe ($90B) have yet to go public.
And here are some memes:
Back in 2009 when I was very single and very broke, I once booked a flight from Saigon to Shanghai…but included a 36-hour detour to Malaysia, all in an effort to save $50. Now, travelling with a wife and kid, the hotel bottles of water cost $50…ugh (anyways, the replies on the tweet are incredible).
I’ll have to explain this last set of memes. So, ESPN analyst Brian Windhorst went on the show First Take and talked about an NBA trade. You don’t have to be a fan of basketball to appreciate how epic the segment is (in terms of storytelling and drama). In two-short minutes, Windhorst paints an incredible picture with animated hand movements, exaggerated gestures and pointed questions. Def watch.
Obviously, the internet meme’d the segment into oblivion: