Picasso: a challenging perspective

Nick Reeves visited the new Picasso exhibition at the National Gallery and wonders whether it was worth the bother.

Pablo Picasso: taking a view at the National Gallery

Let’s get one thing straight: Picasso was an opportunist, and a lucky one at that. He always seemed to be in the right place, with the right people, at the right time. For his own ideas, he borrowed heavily from others and took all the plaudits (and the girls and the money). For example, Georges Braque had every right to claim cubism as his visual invention, not Picasso.

But Picasso was also steeped in the art of the past. He lived and breathed the history of art since childhood. But this was a time when all serious art students were required to learn the methods of the past masters and copy, copy, copy. So immersed was he in the art of the past that when looking at his work it is not always possible to identify a single source for his inspiration.

At art school I was taught that there are only two ways of unravelling the story of Picasso’s art:  there’s the story of the succession of mistresses and wives; and there’s the story of his obsession with the old masters. As stories go, they’re not too bad and, in his biography of the artist, John Richardson (the Picasso-fixated scholar) has chosen the mistress version. His big idea is that “when the woman changed, the art changed”. Each relationship led to a shift in style and a different past master.

Sex sells, so Richardson has taken a well-trodden – and no doubt, lucrative – path. Meanwhile, most serious art historians have followed the old master line. It goes something like this: Picasso’s art is an ongoing struggle with a series of past artists. He picks on El Greco, Poussin, Ingres, Puvis de Chavannes, Cezanne and Toulouse-Lautrec, and ends up in his late and explicit variations on works by Velazquez, Delacroix and Manet.

Both are sex stories, I suppose. One speaks of Picasso’s legendary conquest of women and his willingness to take advantage of the adoring groupies who flocked to his studio. The other is about sexual competition with the giants of the past. Either way, they confirm the received image of the artist as the great goat-genius, whose creativity is at one with his sexual potency and domination. But, for goodness sake, haven’t we had enough of all this? A bit old-hat, isn’t it? Picasso is just a one-man art industry (that perpetuates the idea of art as commodity) with a reputation that is a parody of itself.

Like tabloid editors, the panjandrums at the National Gallery know that the public, hard-wired to celebrity, will salivate for sex. So, here he comes again. “Picasso: Challenging the Past”. The testosterone-charged old master story re-repeated. “This exhibition examines the ways in which Picasso used the art of the past as a source of energy and innovation. He was a master, never a slavish imitator…” Blah, blah, blah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
The show comes from the Grand Palais, Paris, where the Picassos were displayed last autumn alongside their supposed old-master sources, for direct comparison. Not so at the National as it has neither space nor resources. And a good job too. The Paris show was a mess, apparently, and was panned for including prestigious masterpieces like Goya’s Naked Maja that had no obvious link with Picasso.

The London exhibition is much more modest and actually looks quite good in the Sainsbury Wing galleries. It has fewer Picassos, and only Picassos. For comparisons with the old masters it relies on captioned labels and leaflets that direct the visitor to the gallery’s permanent collection but, to be honest, if you saw the show without its labels, I doubt you’d notice it was supposed to be about Picasso’s sources and his direct line from the past.

I left this exhibition a bit depressed. I mean, what is the link that is supposed to enlighten us between that bonkers image of a Man with a Straw Hat and Ice Cream Cone and a self-portrait by Van Gogh? A straw hat? Big deal. And is there any link between a hard still life of Vase, Bowl and Lemon and a Zurbaran still life with its luminous vessels? No way.

This is a modest and random exhibition. Okay, sixty Picassos are worth a look. There are a few really great works and one example of hard-core cubism that has no reason to be there. But the show is weakened by the principle that underlies it. I wouldn’t tell anyone not to see it but there are better ways to while away a couple of hours. Stroll down Millbank to Tate Britain for a beautiful Van Dyck exhibition, for example. But if you’re really into Picasso, Tate Modern has a pretty good display any time of the year.

Picasso images can be mind-blowing but the question is whether that still feels like a current potent-power or just a great ancestral blast from the past. Sadly, this exhibition tells us nothing about this question. A little while ago the answer would have been obvious. Up to the late 1950s Picasso was the artist of the era, myth intact, and his relevance universally understood. But by the end of the century Marcel Duchamp, the great Dadaist trickster and father of conceptualism, had sprinted ahead and taken pole position. Picasso became an outmoded joke-genius. A cool and calculating joker, Duchamp was always the greatest artist for me.
A show that aims to revive Picasso must first estrange and disassemble him, remove any sense of artistic personality and ego, and leave out anything that speaks too fluently in Picasso-ese. Then it should stress those parts of the artist that remain the most impenetrable but fascinating. Focus on his brand of cubism, which still, after all these years, defies comprehension and reasoning and focus on his 1930s images, with their re-configuration of the human form. That’s the sort of show that would make sense. Know what I mean?

Nick Reeves is executive director of CIWEM, the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management.

The Leisure Review, May 2009

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“A show that aims to revive Picasso must first estrange and dissemble him, remove any sense of artistic personality and ego, and leave out anything that speaks too fluently in Picasso-ese.”

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