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Professor's 'Project' Highlights Picasso's 'Languages'

Jan. 5, 2011
SHSU Media Contact: Amy Barnett

Enrique MallenIf you would have met Enrique Mallen when he was a child growing up in Sevilla, Spain, he would have told you what he found most intriguing in life was language.

His fascination with the English and German languages was nurtured in Sevilla, which is considered the cultural capital of southern Spain.

The city of 700,000 people is known for its museums, many of which Mallen would visit regularly with his parents and three siblings. The city’s art museums caught Mallen’s interest and soon cultivated another passion.

“I’ve always been interested in painting,” said Mallen. “I started doing pencil and ink drawings in high school.”

During his teenage years, Mallen became fascinated with the life and works of world-renowned and controversial artist Pablo Picasso and began reading a biography of Picasso written by Roland Penrose.

After graduating from high school, he continued to pursue painting as a hobby but chose to study his first passion, language, at the University of Sevilla.

There he received an undergraduate and a master’s degree in German Linguistics, before moving to the U.S. to obtain his master’s in English Linguistics at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He later received his doctorate in English Linguistics from Cornell University.

Although he had accomplished the goals he had set for himself upon moving the U.S., Mallen felt motivated to further his studies in language; not just verbal language, but pictorial language as well, and more importantly, he said, how the two are connected.

“Throughout the years I’ve been exploring languages through different views,” said Mallen. “In 1997 I started applying some of those concepts to visual arts, Picasso in particular.”

During his endeavor, Mallen put a great deal of focus on an avant-garde art movement known as Cubism. The movement, which lasted from 1907 until 1911, was pioneered by Picasso and French painter Georges Braque. In Cubist artworks, objects are broken up and reassembled in an abstract way, allowing the artist to show his subject from several viewpoints.

“Cubism concentrates on the language of art; when you paint, how you arrange things on canvas, how you combine colors and how you do line work. Picasso and others were very interested in how that language worked,” said Mallen.

Much of what Mallen learned while studying thousands of Picasso’s paintings can be found in his book, “The Visual Grammar of Pablo Picasso.”

When Mallen published the book, he was teaching an art history class about Picasso at Texas A&M University, using the book and a slide projector as teaching aids. He said he remembers thinking “there has to be a better way to show art than with a slide projector.”

Mallen said he found a “better way” with the birth of the Internet. He started a webpage containing literature about several of the artists he taught about in his classes, as well as images of their paintings; however, the focus was on Picasso.

As the Internet became more sophisticated, so did the webpage, soon evolving from a basic visual aid to a detailed research tool known as The On-line Picasso Project.

“What I like about the project is that it has everything. I’ve published books and a lot of articles, but I get hundreds of visitors (to the website) a day, so it has a very practical purpose,” said Mallen.

The On-line Picasso Project is called “the most extensive biography and overview of Picasso’s works” by art enthusiasts and museum curators. The tool allows users to sort through Picasso’s works by the year or the season he painted them, the painting style he was using (Picasso is known for changing his styles), and even by the location of where his works are today.

Mallen estimates that Picasso produced about 50,000 works of art. Images of more than 18,000 of them can be found on the On-line Picasso Project, as well as screened literature pertaining to the works.

The site also includes hundreds of poems written by Picasso from 1935 to 1968.

“Picasso was not only a very prolific artist, he was also a very innovative writer,” Mallen said. “He was so overwhelming as far as his artistic productions that people forget he was a writer.”

Some people consider Picasso’s poems to be visual art as well; he often used decorated hyphens to visually organize his texts, which were written in Spanish or French.

Since Picasso’s poems cannot be read as normal transcribed texts, Mallen has also included images of the original manuscripts on the website.

“It is important to have a very detailed biography of Picasso because he said himself he wrote and painted about his life. It was basically like a diary. Everything that happened around him is reflected in his work,” said Mallen.

Most of Picasso’s art is his interpretation of other artists’ works, according to Mallen, who said he considers himself the same type of artist, often painting his own versions of other artists’ works.

“What I’ve done with my paintings is basically explore the vision of other artists. So my art is about art, just like Picasso’s art is about art,” he said.

Mallen has created close to 100 paintings, several of which hang in his office at Sam Houston State University.

He has been teaching in the foreign languages department at SHSU since 2007. When he is not teaching a linguistics course, or a class on the art of Pablo Picasso, he is screening, compiling and uploading information onto the On-line Picasso Project.

“A lot of my books are based on the project, so basically I’m the first user of the project,” he said. “The more I use it, the more I learn about Picasso in ways I wouldn’t be able to learn without it.”

Mallen said the beauty of the project is that it has no end; even after all 50,000 works of art are located, information is always changing and art is always being traded or sold.

Although the project keeps him busy, he continues to pick up a brush and make time for his favorite hobby.

Ask Mallen now what he finds most intriguing in life, and the answer is still language; however, language today has a much deeper meaning to him than it did when he was boy growing up in Sevilla.

As a leading Picasso expert, Mallen shares this knowledge at events all over the world, heading this month to Kunsthaus Zürich, Switzerland, to discuss the artist's poetry, something, he says, “is finally receiving the attention it deserves.”

“His writing is not only fascinating from the point of view of literature, but also as a form of plastic creation,” Mallen said. “One could even entertain the possibility that Picasso ‘the writer’ was in fact merely one more of his many creations. There is a famous quote by Picasso: ‘I wanted to be an artist, and I became Picasso.’”

To view the On-line Picasso Project, go to Picasso.shsu.edu/.



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