Forever divided over Picasso: Part 1, why I love him
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Forever divided over Picasso: Part 1, why I love him
Portrait photograph of Pablo Picasso, 1908. Photo: Anonymous - Photo © RMN-Grand Palais.

by Deborah Solomon



NEW YORK, NY.- When I was a teenager, Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” that colossal anti-war painting rendered in newspaper tones of black and gray, was on loan to the Museum of Modern Art. The artist had sent it to New York before World War II to safeguard it from Francisco Franco, the dictator who ended democracy in Picasso’s native Spain.

“Guernica” stayed at MoMA for more than four decades, and growing up under its spell enlarged my sense of what art could be. Art, it seemed, was not about the pursuit of refinement and social polish but an encounter with the kind of raw, screaming emotion adolescents have no trouble grasping.

I remained a Picasso worshipper, even as friends decorated their dorm rooms with posters by Matisse — blankly elegant images of all-blue nudes scrubbed of any detail. They enchanted but they lacked the earthy potato-life that sprang from so many Picasso images. His pencil lines pushed through space and curved against gravity like some new type of wind-resistant plant that botanists had yet to name.

It is not hugely cool to profess a love for Picasso these days. His status as the greatest of all modern artists, which was taken as an article of faith for much of the 20th century, has worn thin in a #MeToo world. Part of the problem is that his self-advertised image as a sexual conqueror, a Don Juan with a paintbrush, no longer charms. As we know from an ever-growing shelf of biographies and memoirs, he could be an unrepentant bully. He mistreated his numerous wives and mistresses, ensnaring them in a sadistic two-step of seduction and abandonment in violation of all standards of decency.

As we contemplate the 50th anniversary of Picasso’s death, on April 8, and the cornucopia of 40-plus museum exhibitions that will commemorate him, in New York and across Europe, I find myself pulled between disapproval of the man and a critic’s adoration of his art. And, as in the case of critics who have cringed at the offending views of Ernest Hemingway, Richard Wagner and T.S. Eliot, the art love wins out. I cannot agree with feminist critics who write off Picasso as a pseudo-master whose work has been overrated and artificially propped up by the patriarchy.

One of the great ironies surrounding his life is that a man who behaved so callously toward women produced so many sensitive and empathetic images of them, not to mention some of the most civic-minded masterworks of the 20th century. This is what Picasso’s detractors — such as Hannah Gadsby, the Australian comedian and Picasso basher who will help curate a Picasso show at the Brooklyn Museum opening June 2 — often miss.

If there is an argument to be made in 2023 that he should be ignored on the basis of his misbehavior, there is another to be made for the need to look deeply at his art again. Since his death the rise of feminism has provided a lens through which to reconsider his work and especially his representation of women. And there is much we are just beginning to notice.

For starters can we please retire the oft-cited plaint that he reduced women to sex objects? Women were the dominant subject of his art and he viewed them as sources of vulnerability and strength. They appear in a wide range of personas and moods. He painted women who were intellectuals and artists. Women who engaged with the world or turned away from it in dreamy reverie. Women with two profiles and vertically stacked eyes, icons of emotional complexity. In 1937, he painted the anguished women of “Guernica” — noble messengers alerting the world to the horrors of the Spanish Civil War.

Has any other visual artist left us with such a vivid pantheon of female characters? Paul Cézanne, by contrast, rendered his wife, Hortense, as a severe matron who appears less animated than the apples in his still lifes. Edgar Degas was less interested in the interior lives of his ballerina-subjects than in the animal awkwardness of their bodies and the pleasure of glimpsing them from behind. Amedeo Modigliani’s stylized portraits make his hundreds of female subjects look like part of an extended family whose members have a genetic predisposition for long faces and giraffe necks.

Picasso brought the weight of lived experience into his work, even when he was tethered to archetypal subjects. He can fairly be called the foremost painter of mothers and children of the 20th century. One of my favorite-ever paintings is “The Mother,” at the St. Louis Art Museum, in which a 30-ish woman appears in bony profile, hurrying into town, beneath a cloudy, green-smudged sky. As she grips the hand of her chubby toddler (who chomps distractedly on an apple) and carries her second child on her shoulder, she exemplifies motherhood purged of the usual Renaissance-style bliss. Here, instead, is a woman who will go to the ends of the earth for her children and isn’t expecting anyone’s thanks.

And in the pantheon of Picasso superwomen, let’s not forget Gertrude Stein, the American expatriate writer who took a shine to the young Spaniard. Stein, who was 15 years older than him, traipsed regularly up the steep hill in Montmartre to pose in his studio in the fabled Bateau-Lavoir. His famous portrait of her, at the Metropolitan Museum, brilliantly transforms her extra 30 pounds and linebacker shoulders into a sign of her immensity as a writer. Dressed in her usual brown corduroy coat, she is as monumental as any of the biblical sibyls gazing down from the Sistine ceiling.




For years we focused on Picasso as Mr. Modernism, the audacious avant-gardist who co-founded cubism in the years before World War I. Working with Georges Braque, he shattered the single-point perspective that had prevailed in painting since the Renaissance. Instead of replicating literal reality, he sought, in the twisting tornado of analytic cubism (1910-12) and later in the wider and sunnier planes of synthetic cubism, to dismantle the process of seeing, to capture the little shifts of perception that occur in time as you contemplate any sight.

His myth has been burnished by his prodigious output — he produced an estimated 13,500 paintings, in addition to astounding quantities of drawings, prints, sculptures and ceramics — as well as his embrace of contradictory styles. He veered between opposite poles of abstraction and realism, between the gaunt, poetic figures of his Blue Period and the zaftig matrons of his Rose Period, between the paper-lightness of his wildly inventive collages and the bulbous tonnage of his sculpted bronze heads. As Jackson Pollock, his much-younger American admirer, once remarked, “That guy missed nothing!”

When I was in college, studying art history, I was taught that Picasso was a Prometheus-like figure who gave the gift of artistic fire to Pollock and his fellow abstract expressionists in the war-torn ’40s. But his influence began waning in the early ’60s, when modernism yielded to postmodernism, with its emphasis on pastiche and irony. The new art god was Marcel Duchamp, an expatriated Frenchman who was living quietly in Greenwich Village, a wry, cerebral artist-philosopher who claimed to have given up art for chess. What is art? Anything, Duchamp contended, even a store-bought bottle rack, and his exaltation of found objects eventually became its own art-school orthodoxy, leading two generations of artists to marginalize painting as passé.

Today, when so many younger artists are thinking about their personal stories and feelings of social marginalization — whether through race, gender or ethnicity — the medium of painting has returned to prominence. And Picasso himself, hyper-conscious of his Andalusian origins and expatriate status in France, can be seen as a forerunner of the recent turn to autobiography in art.

Two new books argue as much. Pascal Bonafoux’s “Picasso: The Self-Portraits” is an attractive volume that brings together the artist’s 170 self-portraits in various mediums, including photography. And in “Picasso the Foreigner,” French writer Annie Cohen-Solal cuts through the usual fluff about Parisian bohemia (goodbye absinthe) and takes us instead north of the city, to the archives building of the French police. Consulting yellowed documents, she tracks the xenophobia that followed Picasso in his adopted homeland, where the police branded him an alien. Tellingly, he never became a French citizen, which may partly explain the mood of disenfranchisement that infuses the early work of his Blue Period and especially his scenes of “saltimbanques” or circus performers, like “The Frugal Repast,” his first-ever etching, in which emaciated lovers with spindly El Greco fingers have nothing in this world but each other.

One of the significant shows this year, “Picasso and El Greco,” opening at the Prado Museum in Madrid on June 13, will look at how the young Picasso was shaped by his 16th-century Greek-born predecessor, whose flamelike forms appeal to everyone’s inner expressionist.

In New York, the Picasso-themed exhibitions will be modestly scaled. A small but promising show opening May 12 at the Guggenheim Museum, “Young Picasso in Paris,” centers on “Le Moulin de la Galette,” a newly conserved masterwork from the permanent collection. Completed in 1901, it was among Picasso’s first canvases in Paris as a 19-year-old newcomer torn between the realism of the Spanish past and the loose brushwork of French post-impressionism.

I recently visited the Guggenheim’s conservation lab, where the painting looked dazzling. Set at a famous dance hall near the artist’s studio, “Le Moulin de la Galette” gives off a glowy energy. Picasso clearly delighted in the sight of the dozen or so women gathered at the hall — with their bright red lips and rouged cheeks, their fur stoles and long dresses, their animated gestures as they whisper to each other, heads pressed together. The male figures, by contrast, are total duds; they’re basically faceless. In the upper left corner of the painting, three gentlemen in top hats perch on a raised platform, coldly assessing the attractiveness of the women.

The painting recalls earlier French paintings, especially Renoir’s “Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette,” a touchstone of impressionism set in the wholesome light of midafternoon. Picasso’s canvas is more enticing because it is set at night and suffused with so much radiance, whether in the women’s expressions or in the electric lights that stretch in a garland across the top of the canvas, tiny blurs of yellow flashing against the enveloping mist of velvety, Velázquez-like darkness.

The conventional view of the painting holds that the women are “dolled-up cocottes,” as John Richardson glibly put it in his biography of Picasso. Yet it needs to be said that the women are more alive than the men. They hint at Picasso’s fascination with female figures as the heroes of modern life.

So how could I ever turn on Picasso? I won’t. Not ever. He sustained a remarkable intensity of feeling as he shifted from the convincing realism of this early paintings to the splintered shards of cubism. It was a spectacular leap, and you suspect it was driven by his knowledge that everyone’s life appears to be broken into pieces when glimpsed close up.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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