02/07/2014 01:37 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Artistic Creativity Can Be Continuous or Discrete

In 1905, a year before his death, 66-year-old Paul Cézanne wrote to the younger painter Emile Bernard that "I believe I have in fact made some more progress, rather slow, in the last studies which you have seen at my house." Although he confessed that it was "very painful to have to state that the improvement produced in the comprehension of nature from the point of view of the picture and the development of the means of expression is accompanied by old age and a weakening of the body," Cézanne nonetheless affirmed his belief in his incremental progress toward his artistic goal: "Time and reflection, moreover, modify little by little our vision, and at last comprehension comes to us."


Paul Cézanne, Self-portrait (1879-1882). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Scholars and critics have long agreed with Cézanne's characterization of his gradual artistic growth. So for example Roger Fry described the last three decades of Cézanne's life as "a long research for an ultimate synthesis which unveils itself little by little," and Meyer Schapiro considered Cézanne's art "a model of steadfast searching and growth," with his last two decades "a period of magnificent growth." Clive Bell considered all of Cézanne's later life "a climbing towards an ideal," in which every picture was "a means, a step, a stick, a hold, a stepping-stone - something he was ready to discard as soon as it had served his purpose."


Paul Cézanne, Self-portrait with Beret (1898-1900). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In 1923, 42-year-old Pablo Picasso firmly rejected the notion that his art had evolved over time, declaring that "The several manners I have used in my art must not be considered as an evolution." He insisted that change was not the same as evolution - "Variation does not mean evolution" - and explained that he changed his art whenever he had new ideas: "If an artist varies his mode of expression this only means that he has changed his manner of thinking." Change did not imply improvement: "in changing, it might be for the better or it might be for the worse."

Scholars and critics have agreed with Picasso's characterization of his art as discontinuous. Thus John Berger wrote that Picasso's career was "made up of metamorphoses - sudden inexplicable transformations," and remarked that "In the life work of no other artist is each group of works so independent of those which have just gone before, or so irrelevant to those which are to follow." David Sylvester likened Picasso's transformations to those of a kaleidoscope, and stressed that his many changes were not symptomatic of growth, because the new did not build on the old: "There is no growth because each change cancels rather than qualifies what was there before."


Pablo Picasso, Self-Portrait (1907). Image courtesy of Národní Galerie, Prague.

Neither of these patterns was idiosyncratic, for each is associated with a different kind of creativity. Cézanne's gradual and continuous growth is characteristic of experimental innovators, whereas Picasso's sudden, discrete changes are typical of conceptual innovators. An example of a perceptive comparison of the differing approaches was provided by the scholar John Golding, in discussing the three great pioneers of abstraction - the experimental Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, and the conceptual Kazimir Malevich. Thus Golding observed that it was "fair to say that Malevich's abstraction sprang, Athena-like, ready formed from the brow of its creator; this distinguishes Malevich's approach very sharply from that of both Mondrian and Kandinsky, who had sensed and inched their way into abstraction over a period of many years."

Cézanne, Kandinsky, and Mondrian all understood that they were artistic seekers, who innovated cautiously and continuously; Picasso and Malevich equally understood that they were finders who made sudden and discrete artistic leaps. Today's scholars of creativity generally fail to understand this basic difference, but we should not let this prevent us from recognizing that creativity can be either continuous or discrete.