True art forces one to confront uncomfortable questions. Can the human condition be distilled into a painting? Can beauty be defined? Pablo Picasso, whose work encapsulates these inquiries, also dared to ask a question no other modern artist was asking: Is poop the ideal artistic medium?
Possibly, he surmised, so he smeared his three-year-old daughter’s poop onto a canvas and attempted to paint a still life of an apple. This decision, The Guardian reports, means he “may have been the first artist to work with human shit.”
This nugget of information comes from his granddaughter, Diana Widmaier Picasso, who dumps this knowledge in the recently released book 100 Secrets of the Art World. “According to him, excrement from an infant breast-fed by its mother had a unique texture and ocher color,” the younger Picasso explains. “The revulsion that this material might provoke is instead transformed into amazement as we grasp the full imagination of the artist.”
The ability of the body to create artistic materials is amazing indeed. Your poop is brown because your bodily waste passes along through the intestinal tract, which is full of bile pigments known as bilirubin and dead white blood cells, as it moves through the large intestine. When the bacteria in feces interacts with the bilirubin, red blood cells are broken down — creating the brown in your downtown.
But Picasso wasn’t fascinated by grown-up poop. It was baby poop, which has that certain je ne sais quoi brand of ocher — a yellow-brown hue — that caught his eye. Bile, again, proves to be key to the creation of art. Breast milk travels down the gastrointestinal tract from the baby’s mouth to its anus, and along the way, it is broken down by digestive juices and bile. The bile in a baby’s gut causes waste containing breast milk to become yellow, light brown, or green, along with a consistency experts compare to peanut butter. When the baby defecates, voila — paint pigment for Picasso.
While Picasso may have been the first artistic master to use poop in art, he was certainly not the last (there’s a whole Wikipedia page on art that uses bodily fluids). Young artists pay heed: No need to scrounge for oil sets when your bodily functions so readily provide.
Photos via Wikimedia Commons/Pablo Picasso