Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris
at the Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney until 25 March 2012,
and the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 28 April – 23 August, 2012.
Amidst recent debate over whether the “blockbuster” art show is dead, alive, dying, waning or mutating, it takes a blockbuster to appreciate the value of a blockbuster. This is especially so in Australia, whose several fine museums all started collecting way too late to accumulate many of the great masters. As Edmund Capon said in a recent interview, the quirky array of names along the sandstone frieze of the Art Gallery of New South Wales — Raphael, Michael Angelo (sic), Bellini, Titian — are aspirational, a list of all the artists whose works “we don’t have.” He didn’t add that we never will have them, but there is a poignance to that list of names in bronze, a reminder of one “tyranny of distance” which was untraversable at the time of the gallery’s construction and remains so. Whether or not one of Australia’s mining billionaires ever finds the taste and generosity to buy one of our public galleries some minor Titian, Capon, retiring after thirty very successful years as director of the Gallery, can now justifiably brag that he leaves it “full of Picassos.”
Such a haul has been made possible by renovations to the Musée National Picasso’s magnificent hôtel particulier, the Hôtel Salé, in the Marais. The collection is one of the most dramatic results of the wonderful French policy of Dation, the donation of artworks to public museums in lieu of estate tax. When Picasso died in 1973, the French state was able to choose 5000 works from the artist’s personal collection. The 150 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures selected for this show by curator Anne Baldassari have been on the road since 2008, stopping in Madrid, Tokyo, Moscow, Seattle and San Francisco, with Toronto still to come. For the spatially-constrained AGNSW, Picasso presents another opportunity for renovation by stealth in the same vein as the new Kaldor contemporary galleries. After the show closes, the Gallery’s superb 20th century Australian collection will return to the improved digs vacated by the Picassos.
Covering as it does the entirety of Picasso’s career, the exhibition is as difficult to summarize as it is delightful to experience. Picasso must have been about the age of the smiling subject of Le jeune peintre, painted on 14 April 1972, when he confidently blacked in the shadows of his Etude académique d’un plâtre d’après l’antique (1893-94). This exhibition is ‘just the Picassos, ma’am,’ neither dumbed-down nor over-theorized. The viewer is forced, thankfully, by the quantity and diversity of masterpieces in the show, to contend with the full energy of Picasso’s output, without the supporting crutch of any unifying theme. Labels include only basic information — title, media, provenance and date. The density of ideas in each of the nine dated rooms — 1895-1905, 1906-1909, 1910-1915, 1916-1924, 1925-1935, 1936-1939, 1940-1951, 1952-1960 and 1961-72 — make Picasso years feel like dog years, compressed and eventful. Even within the limits of each date range and the standard periods of his work (Blue Period, Rose Period, Cubism, etc.), Picasso is difficult to pin down. His creativity was restless, prolific, inquisitive and very much of the 20th century. Where known, the works are dated with extraordinary precision, down to the day in the case of later work, allowing the viewer to create their own correspondence with the many world-historical and personal events of Picasso’s life. For Australia this may be the big Picasso show of all-time, but the exhibition’s curators have avoided the temptation to overwhelm. Rather than providing a Thanksgiving Day parade of one famous canvas after another, the relative balance between major masterpieces, sculptures, prints, drawings, and unfinished works seems designed to inspire further study, though the inevitable crowds make close looking difficult.
The first piece which both expresses and demands such a gaze is La Célestine (la femme à la taie) (1904), likely the portrait of a notorious brothel-keeper in a 15th century Spanish novel and in any case one tough cookie, at least at first glance. Her left eye is occluded by leucoma, making her an obvious precursor to the blacked-out eye which would look out at an astonished world from Les demoiselles d’Avignon only three years later. Celestina sits markedly off center on the canvas, like a lonely, elongated mountain in a cropped landscape. The flat blue planes of the background and the darker blue of her hooded robe frame the only slightly warmer tones of her face, a mouth which is more defeated than bitter and a gaze which is not entirely hostile. The power of this portrait, and what it demonstrates of Picasso’s ability to concisely observe and evoke a world, seems to radiate from Celestina across the rest of the exhibition, arguing against the instinctive feeling that, especially in the last ten years of his life, Picasso’s violent changes of style and medium were undertaken too lightly. One might be tempted to define this as Picasso’s conservative, classical moment, but which is more conservative, Celestina or Picasso’s obsessive repetition of Le déjeuner sur l’herbe in his final years?
By the Self-portrait of autumn 1906, Picasso was already stripping back his subjects, maintaining the intense asymmetrical gaze and introducing a thicker outline both around the figure and in the facial features, which become stark black lines. From here, Picasso’s intense preparations for Les demoiselles, under the influence of the “primitive art” he encountered in the dusty halls of the Musée de l’homme, led to such masterpieces as Trois figures sous un arbre (1907-08), with its brave cross-hatching in shades of brown and blue, and Paysage aux deux figures(1908), in which similar tones are more smoothly delineated and the confrontational stare is replaced by something like an idyll, the figures almost melting into the trunks of the trees.
From here, cubism and collage become imaginable. The mutual egging on between Picasso and Braque is best represented in two works of 1911, Homme à la guitare and Homme à la mandoline, which we are most fortunate to be able to compare side by side. Here, the Aussie Bloke theory of connoisseurship — ‘ I don’t see no guitar’ — isn’t a bad place to start. Though obviously related to each other and to Braque’s paintings of the same period, in Homme à la guitare the figure is much more recognizable than in the more purely geometrical Homme à la mandoline. The latter work seems to push cubism very close to total abstraction. The figure, such as he is, breaks down into roof-like triangles and semicircles which become as much a landscape as a portrait, perhaps the skyline of a hillside village, certainly not far from Picasso’s very recognizable Sacré-Coeur of 1909-1910.
The paintings, collages and wall-mounted sculpture of this period may represent the most sustained expression of a single idea in the exhibition, and yet only a year separates the collage Guitare of 1913 from the unfinished and very classical Le peintre et son modèle. What the accompanying pamphlet calls “A return to classicism” could as easily be called a discovery of vivid color, color which would eventually veer toward certain pinks, greens and purples absent in nature. In the classical period the colors are not so extravagant. The tiny Les baigneuses of 1918 has the intense saturation of a frame of celluloid held against the sky. Deux femmes courant sur la plage (La course) of 1922 (the year Ulysses was published, always a good modernist waypoint, but still a good six dog years before Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye epitomized architectural modernism), is similar in subject, color and size and was indeed designed to be enlarged for the backdrop of the ballet Le Train Bleu (1924). This feels like the point of no return. The preceding experiments in cubism required neutral colors in order to render their formal revolution visible. Combine such experimentation, never quite pushed to full abstraction, with a full palette and the resulting works stop being so recognizably of a movement. From this point forward color rules; even the more monochrome canvases, such as Le jeune peintre or Femme à l’orellier (1969), seem not to be built up in gray, white and black so much as distilled down from the vibrant palette of the most colorful works. The color is implied in the energy of the line.
At this point the exhibition itself opens up, seemingly in sympathy the exuberance of Picasso’s work through to the mid-1930s, a darker period for Picasso and for Europe, Spain in particular. His unfinished 1917 Portrait of Olga in an Armchair recalls Ingres in the porcelain smoothness of her skin, her hair, the floral fabric of the chair, the fan she holds in her left hand and the pattern along the hem of her dress. The raw canvas of the backdrop makes a most effective contrast to all this detail and though the result of the painting’s (perhaps intentionally) unfinished state, the neutral beige plane is not much different from that of the more aloof Olga portrait of 1923. As a reference to what Picasso would have seen in the Louvre, the portrait reveals the (impeccable) weirdness of Ingres in a more subtle way than the carnival of historical reference in his later work. Both approaches have their roots in the history of art and the exhibition reveals the full spectrum of the ways an artist can “steal” from history, from cracking the safe to blowing it up with dynamite. The tools depend on the job at hand.
In any case, Olga and the life she evokes is far from the rough, stark world of Celestina. The differences between the 1917 portrait and the photograph of Olga hanging in the antechamber to the AGNSW exhibit are fascinating. While Picasso is unusually faithful to the pattern of the armchair’s upholstery, Olga herself has been subtly idealized, stretched out slightly, her dancer’s posture perfected and the severity of her photographed expression softened into a pensive melancholy. Ingres might well have approved.
This editing of reality of course became more overt as time went on. Picasso’s ability to capture a likeness in the most distorted figure is legendary, something which can be sensed by the viewer in the difference between the human body as puzzle in L’acrobate (1930) — which makes an ideal cover for the exhibition’s catalogue — and The Reader (La Lecture) of 1932, unmistakably an intimate portrait of a particular woman, Marie-Thérèse Walter. Along with works such as Figures au bord de la mer and the bronze Tete de femme (1931), The Acrobat is one of a series of ropy exercises in distortion that show a more analytical Picasso than the passionately involved observer who painted The Reader, or La grande nature morte au guéridon (1931), itself a coded portrait of Marie-Thérèse. This idea of the portrait hidden in a still life may originate in one of the most beautiful paintings on display, one which contains the multitudes to come, the entirely correct and very surreal Nature morte au pichet et aux pommes of 1919.
These tendencies build to a disquieting pitch in the next room, devoted to Picasso’s work in the three years before the Second World War, the period of Guernica. An agony which is overt in that epic work, the nightmarish La suppliante (1937) or the apocalyptic Chat saisissant un oiseau (1939) is coiled up and personalized in La femme qui pleure, one of two weeping women painted in October 1937 (the October 18 oil on canvas version is in the exhibition) and very much a painting for our times. However scratchy, however proto-Twomblian the execution, however (seemingly) accidental the composition, this is still recognizably the same woman depicted in the larger, much more reposeful Portrait de Dora Maar painted the same year.
At this point, the viewer becomes aware of time in Picasso’s work. The dates on the labels clump together, in at least one case two works appear from successive days. Picasso upsets the romantic idea that great art takes a great deal of time without ever descending into Warhol’s factory system. The work remains unmistakably handmade, however fleeting the moment of its execution. As Picasso himself said, his art-making was a “way of keeping a diary,” not a stone tablet or a neatly calculated career trajectory. La femme qui pleure is a greater painting for having been dashed off, without time for the mood of its conception to fade. It and many other of the smaller works are about being in a hurry. An overtly political work like Massacre in Korea (1951) is just as powerful, but feels necessarily more considered, more conscious of its place in the continuum of art history (after Guernicaand next to Goya, naturally).
The sculpture in the show combines swiftness of conception with the necessarily slower process of fabrication, usually in bronze casting. There is a great sense of fun in many of the sculptures, particularly in Picasso’s very important contribution to the making sculpture out of found objects. Out of cubism and collage comes the Head of a woman (1929-30) made out of a couple of colanders, a spring and a few other metal scraps. It is one of those works that has the feeling of being an inevitable moment in the history of art, like the white canvas, a Pollock action painting or stream of consciousness in literature. Somebody hadto do this, for it was implied in all that came before.
The bronze Goat of 1950, one of the exhibition’s superstars, is a more deeply considered assemblage. The cleverness of the execution — a wicker basket forming the rib cage, part of a palm frond for the face, two milk pitchers for the teats — is enriched by the intensely goaty presence of the object. The Goat is a diary of the way Picasso saw his surroundings, both literally as a palette of found materials, and as a theatre for close observation, whether of his various companions or a goat in a field. Another famous assemblage, Les Baigneurs (1956) is more angular but just as closely observed. Had he lived long enough, Picasso could have entered it in Sculpture by the Sea, where one hopes it would have won a prize…
One could list three times as many works of the same quality, but the question of what to make of Picasso would remain open. As resurrections, Madonnas and adorations were for Piero della Francesca or Bellini, so Picasso went very far with guitars, minotaurs, bathers and women’s heads. The critical difference is that Picasso imposed a constrained palette of subjects on himself. He was neither Warhol nor the archetypal Hollywood auteur making King Lear out of a western in an industrial system, he was one of the rare 20th century artists able to prosper from following his instincts, a happy circumstance which makes him no less of a genius (and I don’t mean the kind who shows you how to ride the wave at the local Ap–e Store). Perhaps what we see is Picasso’s obsession, perhaps an obsessive reimagining of the outside world. Perhaps a more or less methodical attempt to exhaust the inventive capacity of his own mind, an internalized version of George Perec’s Tentative d’epuisement d’un lieu parisien. It is sometimes helpful to see the work through Picasso’s biography, but in the end there is only the work to look at and, as the Australians say, better to play the ball than the man.
After a couple of hours in the exhibition, once has to remind oneself that these are inanimate objects. The exhibition feels not like a blockbuster so much as the building of a case, very quickly proven, of an artist’s greatness. Ever the showman, Picasso keeps piling on evidence until one feels acutely, simultaneously, both his presence and absence in our world. As much as Leonardo, Picasso represents the idealized artist’s life of a certain époque. Like the Sydney Opera House, Picasso is a relic, however lively, of a heroic modernism which is as much a part of the past as the Raphaels, Titans and Bellinis we will enjoy in Canberra next month.
Whether or not one thinks of exhibitions like this, or the upcoming Renaissance show in Canberra, or last year’s visiting Post-Impressionists from the Musée d’Orsay as “blockbusters” is ultimately a matter of how one chooses to look at art, both individual artworks in a show and The Arts as a structural member holding up democratic society. For most of the news media, the story will always turn on the numbers — attendance figures, the pricelessness of the works, the cost of insurance, the number of planes required to haul the treasures across the ocean. For those who attend these exhibitions, and we all should, the impact is far less quantifiable. Louis Kahn’s definition of the city as a “Forum of the Availabilities” is one of the best I know because it exalts the institutions which justify city life. Libraries, museums, universities, parks are the places in a city where we can each take something away without taking from anyone else. In these places, magically, subversively, taking makes the pie grow like a magic pudding. Subjecting our public “availabilities” to the verdict of a spreadsheet does a lot of damage (and is one of the reasons for Sydney’s current malaise). Putting a bunch of Picassos on a plane and sending them across the ocean is good for us and somehow good for the artworks too, situated as they are somewhere on the lively side of the inanimate. Blockbuster or not, their aura thickens as the eyeballs glide past.