Despite his long residence in France, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) always considered himself Spanish. To ignore this is to misunderstand the driving impulses behind so much of his work, as revealed in the landmark exhibition, Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National de Picasso, Paris. We see the how powerful that Spanish aspect was, both for a youth fresh from the cafes of Barcelona, and for an old man still painting matadors.
One way of reading Picasso’s astonishing creativity is as a dialogue between the culture of France, his adopted home, and that of his native land. After Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War, Picasso could never return to the country of his birth, which became a land of myth and memory. Although he was the best-known, most successful painter of the 20th century, he liked to think of himself as an outsider.
It hardly needs emphasizing that all the important breakthroughs in modern art were due to the efforts of self-styled outsiders who helped tear down the fortresses of cultural orthodoxy. One of these strongholds was the idea of a classical art, born in ancient Greece, revived during the Renaissance, and brought to a final flowering in France, by artists such as Poussin, David and Ingres. By the end of the nineteenth century, this legacy had degenerated into a stale academicism, challenged first by Courbet, then by Manet, the “rebel in a frock coat”, who combined a bourgeois lifestyle with a revolutionary approach to painting.
A large part of Manet’s challenge was based on his appreciation of Spanish art, in particular the work of Velasquez and Goya. In the period before the First World War, called the Belle Epoque, Spain became the vital ‘other’ to the polite conventions of French art.
It seems there is a grain of truth in Gertrude Stein’s bizarre claim: “Painting in the nineteenth century was only done in France and by Frenchmen, apart from that, painting did not exist, in the twentieth century it was done in France but by Spaniards.”
Poussin said that Caravaggio had come into this world “to destroy painting”, and the same might be said of Picasso. He said something very similar himself: “For me, a picture is the sum of destruction. I make a painting and then destroy it.” This line is reprinted in the catalogue for this exhibition, and even emblazoned on the gallery wall.
It sounds terribly profound, but what does it mean to say a picture is “the sum of destruction”? Quite simply, it means taking nothing for granted. For Picasso, from an early stage of his career, there was no rule-book for art. He borrowed ideas freely from many sources, adapting them to his own purposes. He might abandon a painting abruptly when he felt he had achieved the desired effect, leaving half the canvas empty. His works have both public and a private faces, with a range of personal meanings (and jokes) not immediately obvious to an audience.
Picasso delighted in confounding his critics and his followers. When Cubism had become a fashionable movement, he began painting in a Neo-classical style. When other artists identified themselves with a ‘return to order’ in the years between the wars, Picasso experimented with a range of Surreal, proto-Cubist innovations, including the bathers painted in Dinard, which are well represented in this show. The loose, late works, so roundly abused when they first appeared, are now treated with reverence.
All these traits are on display in the exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW, drawn entirely from the holdings of the Musée National Picasso, which owns almost 5,000 works by the artist, including 254 paintings and 167 sculptures. The bulk of these works were given by Picasso’s heirs in lieu of death duties, and have since been supplemented by important later donations.
These are the works that Picasso kept for himself, the pieces to which he felt most attached. He could afford to be indulgent in his choices because by the middle of his career he was so successful there was no need to hold regular commercial exhibitions. With museums and private collectors queuing up, Picasso could spend much of his time painting for himself, not for the market. For most artists this is a fantasy they will never realise.
There are numerous works in this exhibition that provide extraordinary insights into Picasso’s mind and personality. The first is The Death of Casagemas (1901), a small painting in the manner of Van Gogh, that was never exhibited during the artist’s life-time. Picasso once said that thinking about Casagemas – his disturbed friend who shot himself in a Parisian restaurant – got him started on the blue period. But the memory of Casagemas would haunt Picasso for decades.
It has even been suggested that Casagemas may have put out an eye with the fatal bullet, and this inspired the ‘one blind eye’ motif that occurs with amazing frequency in Picasso’s early work. The motif in turn becomes a symbol of life and death, dream and reality – a wink directed at the exterior world.
The apparent incompletion of works such as the 1918 portrait of his first wife Olga, reflect the incomplete nature of that relationship, which would soon splinter. By contrast, the sensuous curves and colours that feature in Picasso’s paintings of his teenage mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter, are hymns of sexual gratification. The Dinard figures are almost cannibalistic in their embraces. With Dora Maar, the most intellectually and artistically gifted of Picasso’s companions, he seems to have veered between poles of celebration and annihilation. In this show, Dora is a radiant vision in the seated portrait of 1937, and a crude, blackened daub in the Weeping Woman of the same year.
The exhibition invites endless questions and comparisons. This is partly due to the sheer strength of the art, and partly because of the exceptional efforts of Anne Baldassari, director of the Musée Picasso, who chose the works and devised a hang that maximizes the relationships between pieces. After having hung this exhibition in eight previous venues, from Madrid to San Francisco, she applied herself to the task for twelve days in Sydney. In each venue the core pieces were retained, with occasional additions and subtractions. She has changed the works on paper from one museum to the next, and continued experimenting with the hang. Just look at the play of shadows around the sculptures.
When I said to Baldassari that I’d never seen many of these works on paper, she replied: “That’s because they’ve never been shown before.”
It hardly needs stating that it is very rare for an Australian public gallery to host a show of such quality. It is a hundred times more engaging than the National Gallery of Australia’s record-breaking show of works from the Musée d’Orsay, and it deserves a bigger audience. This show is also Edmund Capon’s swansong as director, and it is fitting that his long tenure should end on a high note. It won’t be the same without him.
Edmund and Pablo have at least one thing in common, you sum them up at your peril. It is a long held thesis of Baldassari’s that Picasso was not the arch-misogynist we know from the more sensational biographies, and this exhibition is a way of countering that idea. She aims to explore Picasso’s passionate admiration for women and the role they played in his creative imagination.
It is too banal to say that a misogynist is a man who hates woman. A misogynist can be a man who loves and cherishes a particular idea of womanhood, and becomes bitter when his expectations are not matched by reality. Even in this scenario, I’m not sure that Picasso fits the bill. He pays women a supreme tribute in making them ugly, fractured, misshapen, not merely beautiful. This is what “the sum of destruction” means. Any fool can paint an attractive woman, but only a genius can turn that image inside out to discover a deeper beauty.
I know this sounds strange, but Picasso was one of the most perverse, paradoxical artists of all time. His love and admiration had a dangerous edge, inspiring his most daring distortions. He was the outsider enthroned at the centre of French culture, the master who perpetually invented himself anew. This is captured in the beautifully understated ending to the show: the oil sketch known as The Young Painter (1972). Produced at the end of Picasso’s life, it reveals the undimmed freshness of spirit imprisoned n the aging flesh.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, November 24, 2011
Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris, Art Gallery of NSW, until 25 March 2012