Inspiration in Paintings “Woman with Loaves” And “Contemporary Cave Paintings”

Picasso and Allen and the Remixing of Art

In the many fields related to the generation of ideas, there is a common idea held by quite a few artists, musicians, writers, and otherwise creative minds: there is no such thing as a totally original idea. While thinking about the conversation my two selected pieces would be having, my thoughts kept returning to Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. Within the pages of this book, countless different creatives offer statements relating to how they practice the theft of ideas from other successful people and pieces and use them in their own work.

Picasso himself is quoted as saying “Art is Theft,” right in the beginning of the book. The two artworks I selected—Picasso’s “Woman with Loaves”, painted in 1906, and Thomas Allen’s “Contemporary Cave Paintings”, created in 2015, continue the conversation artists have been contributing to since the beginning of art itself. They also show that even if two artists are inspired or stealing from the same idea, they will produce very different artwork that still shows references to the original work it was influenced by.

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Before looking at each work individually, it would be beneficial to look at the art each of the selected works is thought to be in conversation with. Because Thomas Allen does not have any specific cave painting cited as the sole inspiration for his work, it can be assumed safely that he was inspired by cave paintings in their whole as they are dispersed across the world.

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We do know that Picasso was inspired by the caves at Altamira in Spain, so we will compare Allen’s work to these caves as well. Cave paintings in their entirety are thought to be the first art created by humans, and the art world has shown a certain fondness for them throughout time. Picasso was not the only modern painter to reference them—the Surrealist painter Joan Miró also made a series of paintings titled “Cave Paintings”. Altamira’s cave paintings of bison and deer are dispersed among the cave walls and the ceiling. After exiting the cave, Picasso is quoted as saying “After Altamira, all is decadence” (“Art in the Great Altamira Cave”).

After his visit to Altamira, Picasso produced the portrait “Woman with Loaves,” in 1906. I chose this painting because as an artist myself I am interested in mixing abstraction and realism in the frame, and Picasso’s pieces from the period between his true to life portraits and his jump into cubism have this quality to them. This painting instantly struck me and was easily one of my favorites from our trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Woman with Loaves” was painted during Picasso’s Rose Period, which ended the next year and was followed by his Black or African Period, inspired greatly by African and Iberian sculpture and the period in which the first signs of Cubism as a developed movement appeared (“Picasso’s African-influenced Period”). This portrait shows the beginnings of his shift from pure realism to the stylistic choices of Cubism. The background has abstracted reference to the bison of Altamira’s cave walls, manifested in the red splotches on either side of the canvas. The portrait is of a Spanish peasant woman whose face has also been abstracted through its depiction as heavily influenced by the appearance of Iberian sculpture (Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris). Picasso’s “thievery” is therefore shown not only in the presence of the references to Altamira, but also in the sculpturesque appearance of the peasant woman’s features. One could even go a step further in the vein of no idea being original and say that the fact that this painting is a portrait, and a portrait of a woman, is unoriginal, but once you get on that train of thought, the fact that Picasso used paints in the first place could be seen as unoriginal as well. These aren’t false accusations, of course, but this paper is more focused on the ideas used to render an image, not the materials.

Perhaps a bit more seemingly original in its approach is the work of Thomas Allen, particularly his Contemporary Cave Paintings. Allen is interested in the techniques and ideologies of the Surrealists. During the making of his Contemporary Cave Paintings, he surveys a neighborhood for interesting imagery already in existence, but also asks the residents of that neighborhood to provide automatic drawings that he will then translate into mark-making or imagery in the final cave painting itself. He considers this use of scribbles central to the process of producing a work. The finished work combines abstract imagery and figures to create a surreal dreamscape that, Allen says, represents the “collective unconscious of the neighborhood,” and is a “portrait of its mind” (“Cave Projects”).

Although the Contemporary Cave Paintings perhaps resemble the original cave paintings’ color palette more than Picasso’s “Woman with Loaves,” but show in the very least a nod to the colors used by the first artists. Allen purposefully chooses his colors to be the same hue and of the same material that our ancestors used, but Picasso obviously paid some mind to the shade of red that was used in the cave paintings at Altamira. Allen also paid outright homage to the bison of early cave paintings with an actual representational depiction of the bison in his painting, while Picasso’s reference is more shadowy but still equally present.

Not only do these two pieces converse through the fact that they are both remixes of an older idea, they continue a conversation already long in progress. Artists and other creative minds have been remixing already established and successful ideas since the second sculptor decided to try their hand at sculpting. Good examples of this continual remixing are the perpetual supply of Biblically inspired illustrations, designs, and books, the Renaissance and its reworking of an entire culture’s sculptural library, and countless artistic movements that were derived from another and looked to modify how the public would see the world through tweaking the already existing worldview.

Picasso and Allen were both inspired by the idea and appearance of cave paintings, a universally accepted ancient art that was and is already considered successful, perhaps only for the sake that it is so old and clearly expresses what it’s intending to depict. The fact that both Allen and Picasso integrate abstract language into their works is interesting to consider in comparison with the fact that humankind seemed to begin creating art in an effort to replicate the world around it, whether it was for decoration or for spiritual or magical purposes. “Woman with Loaves” and “Contemporary Cave Paintings” show two different steps in the timeline of art in relation to abstraction and artistic movements. Picasso was making art in a time when many artists were moving away from strict representation, but he was still considered revolutionary when he made his contributions to the advancement of Cubism as its own movement. This selected portrait of his shows a middle ground not many other artists were using. Contemporarily, Allen is producing artwork in a world so saturated with different styles that are trying to be new and different that it makes sense for him to be returning to a style more like the cave paintings’ than Picasso’s. Not only is he taking direct inspiration from the way cave paintings appear, though—he’s also being inspired by the Surrealists in the actual creation of the artwork. The statement “the more things change, the more they stay the same” seems to be easily applicable to this artistic conversation.

The two works also converse on the basis that they are both called portraits, though they are both very different interpretations of that term, and vary considerably from the traditional meaning of the term as well. While Picasso’s piece is seen as a portrait, the heavy influence of Iberian sculpture makes the actual resemblance to the subject of the painting questionable. Allen calls his Contemporary Cave Paintings a portrait of the “collective unconscious of neighborhood” (“Cave Projects”), but at first glance it looks more like just a collection of images dealing with themes of life and death. But these themes easily tie into the unconscious of a place inhabited by many people, perhaps more than the unconscious of a single person.

Both “Woman with Loaves” and “Contemporary Cave Paintings” show the range of possibilities achievable when different artistic minds take on the same idea as inspiration. Picasso and Allen both were inspired by the cave paintings, but also brought in influences from other artworks or movement they were inspired by. These two works are examples of the fact that most, if not all art is a mixture of old ideas presented in a manner that makes them appear as brand new. The older influences can be seen if the viewer knows what to look for, but the new works are accepted as brand new material for the next generation of artists to pick and choose and steal from to continue the cycle.

Updated: Feb 14, 2024
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Inspiration in Paintings “Woman with Loaves” And “Contemporary Cave Paintings”. (2024, Feb 14). Retrieved from

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