Thursday 9 February 2012

On Picasso @ AGNSW

There is a picture that's more or less the last thing you see in the Art Gallery of New South Wales's Picasso exhibition. It's a gentle watercolour self portrait of the youngartist, painted as an old man. It reminds you of Van Gogh's sketchy self-portraits that, in turn,remind you of the black dotted eyes of Rembrandt. It seems not much more than an amusing doodle but in it we see echoesof a history of self-revelatory art and a sense of nostalgia without regret. That's the thing about Picasso, for allthe essays and the debates around biography and ideology, his work retains akind of cheek and charm that comes from play. Picasso’s often beautiful but his work's often funny too. Not smartarse nihilistic funny but punning andgentle showing it’s possible to create serious things without taking one’s selfseriously (the mode today seems all too often to be taking oneself veryseriously and creating something flippant and facile). So the first thing to say is that this show is an utter pleasure.
You can't escape the irony that someone who dealt in totems and fetishes has his own work, say 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon' or any 'Weeping Woman', turned into shorthand for ‘Modern Art’ and all the assumptions we have formed about it in the last 100 years. This imaginary Picasso is different to the one we see if we actually spend time with a range of his work. The famous 'Picasso' means cubism, deliberate opacity, difficult, even ugly art. At the same time 'Picasso' also exists as a shorthand for 'genius', for the mercurial individual creating something with paint that's beyond the understanding of the hoi polloi, who must simply bow to it. ‘Picasso’ also stands for the artist as celebrity, as a cultural industry with a vast output and an indiscriminate approach to licensing. All of these are unhelpful and probably reflect the dislocation of art from contemporary culture. The beauty of this show is that it has enough in it to allow you to see Picasso's art for what it is.
There is another rude, crude assertive self-portrait that looks like a statement of intent from a painter of things. It's almost carved from paint, flat fleshy planes are cut by dark lines. Picasso uses hard lines constantly, perhaps one way his work translated so well onto the etching plate. On a cursory view this can make pieces seem graphic and cartoonish, but look again (and I suspect this accounts for some of the work's longevity) and those dark clefts of paint look like nothing less than chisel marks. Picasso is a sculptural painter, the lines are carved out of the ground, dug into the chalky surface. The flesh has a pink quality of fleshiness to it without actually trying to replicate flesh naturalistically. The smooth bare chest and thick neck do look like those of the earliest Greek kouroi, it's like someone has tried to paint what a chest feels like or is and not just what it looks like. Picasso doesn’t appear to be interested in paint or light or the things that Impressionism chased after, he’s obsessed by the thing itself, the subject as essence.
The physicality of the work makes it enormously sexy, not necessarily in an explicit way but because you get a sense of the erotic frisson of details and the ambiguity of sexual obsession. So when Picasso paints a wife or mistress you see a gazelle like neck or a blonde cap of hair and you get a sense of how erotic memory works. There's a portrait of I'll leave the psychology and sexual politics of Picasso's portraits to others but when you look at a room of them you're never in any doubt that these women were his lovers and not just his sitters. He captures the 'bodyness' of bodies, not the fleshiness of a Rubens but the corporeal space we fill in the world. The genius is that somehow his dissections recreate a sense larger than the whole, a cylinder become a torso or at least the space that torso fills or the feeling of living in that body. Early works in the blue and rose periods drawn out thinness, skin hanging on bone like paint to canvas whereas later figures take on a sculptural monumentality. As elements are isolated and distorted they become more themselves, we become more aware of what it is to be in a body not just to look at one. I think that's part of the power of Picasso, he isn't an aesthete or an intellectual, everything feels driven by an essential humane urge to know what it's like to be alive.
Going through a chronological display of Picasso's work is like cutting through strata of the archaeological record, not only of his own work but the history of art itself. However it doesn't feel like post-modern appropriation and quotation. Sometimes the layers of memory and image remind me of the way builders, for thousands of years, have picked over the ruins of what went before them re-used the stones they found, where ancient columns might become lintels over doorways. That process gives use and life to history. The mythical horns of bull loom large again and again throughout the rooms of the show. Whether it's etchings of rutting minotaurs or the witty modification of a bicycle seat and handle to become a bull's skull. The old bull places us back into the heart of classical mediterranean culture and beyond. When I look at his work (and I mean ALL of his work) I see the bulbous fertility symbols of the stone age, the flaking pornographic frescoes of Pompeii, the bull artifacts of the Minoans, the ruins of classical civilizations that encrust the Mediterranean. It's everywhere, even the geometric cubist still-lives look like nothing so much as tumble down ruins of slate and marble.
I can't help feeling that academia and the art world have done Picasso a huge disservice. The idea that someone's a serious artist, a genius even, because they're dense, complex and academic permeates art. I would urge people to visit this show to see how immediate, rude, funny and moving Picasso is. I don't think it's a coincidence that Picasso can remind us of the totems and icons that made up our earliest forms of art. These were objects and images that didn't live in galleries and museums, quarantined from daily life, they had living social and personal roles. Picasso is powerful precisely because his art is that simple and tangible. When I see the bronze of his sculpture longing to become flesh I realise that this is a show to be seen and felt and not thought about.

I've been twice to the show now, and expect I'll go again. There's just so much to find there that even remembered fragments excite me: 'Etudes' issomething of a memory castle or a trinket box, like a two-dimensional JosephCornell; 'The Race' (which is shockingly and delightfully small in the flesh) and its ritual abandon; the two brothers, one carrying the other, across blasted terracotta earth. The whole 'artist as superstar' fixation we have can get in the way of sheer pleasure. Forgetting art history for a moment I can see why Picasso became, and I'm quite sure still is, the most famous artist in the world.
Something extraordinary that you become aware of quickly inside the galleries is how through painting alone Picasso can remind you of the best of every other art form. There's freeness and joy to the painting that feels like what jazz must look like, there are echoes and rhythms of poetry everywhere and the pulse and warmth of dance. I'm reminded of another genius hijacked by academia, James Joyce, whose Stephen Dedalus speaks of literature as "the eternal affirmation of the the spirit of man". That craving for the essential and universal strikes me as a noble cause. Picasso reminds us of other art forms not because he quotes from them but because he seemed to be searching for things we could all understand. That's not utopian, just human.


  1. Very well done. Great commentary.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful post. It was so informative and inspirational. I love all the different forms of art. Picasso was such a brilliant person and his work will last forever.

    from Dorothy Fleming at What is a PhD by Publication?