The Year Picasso Haunted Us

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Before we enter the room, let’s talk elephants. This year, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Picasso’s death, museums and galleries advanced every interpretation of the man but the big, unsayable one: he has been of weirdly little importance to the past half century of art-making, at least given how important he remains to art history and the art market. One reason is surely his misogyny—the cigarette burn on Françoise Gilot’s face, the lovers who were bullied and discarded (two died by suicide). None of this makes the living eager to emulate his work, or announce when they do. Back in the spring, when the Times interviewed ten prominent artists about Picasso’s influence, several struck an embarrassed note, as though admitting that they shared vestigial DNA with a warthog.

Most of the ten were painters, which brings us to the other reason for Picasso’s subdued legacy. He was a painter first and last, and painting ain’t what it used to be—no longer the champ but one of a dozen sweaty contenders. The Brooklyn Museum’s otherwise dunderheaded “It’s Pablo-matic” hinted at this point when it invoked Marcel Duchamp, the conceptual artist whose repurposed urinals and bicycle wheels earned him a reputation that, per the wall text, “arguably outstripped Picasso’s in the later twentieth century.” The early twenty-first, too, I’d say. “The Echo of Picasso,” a show at Almine Rech supposedly about the artist’s influence, contained plenty of pieces that owed more to winking Marcel than to hot-blooded Pablo (Jeff Koons’s “Split-Rocker,” for example). When you walked out of “It’s Pablo-matic,” you were greeted with a cold lump of kitsch by KAWS, the Duchamp of the TikTok age.

Still, if there’s a moral to Picasso, it might be that nothing is ever really past its prime, least of all art. Consider “Moulin de la Galette” (1900), the centerpiece of the Guggenheim’s sparkling little show “Young Picasso in Paris,” and probably the first Picasso I ever loved. Like a lot of his best work, it makes unease ravishing. He was still a teen-ager when he painted the dance hall, already depicted ad nauseam by Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, as a dark space dominated by women with mouths like oozy wounds and faces that melt into the smoke. The glasses of booze seem as lively as their drinkers. There’s beauty, but none of the back-slapping bonhomie you find in Toulouse-Lautrec’s images of the place; this is Paris as seen by a hick who wouldn’t know Montmartre from a hole in the ground, which makes it all the more satisfying that he leaves Toulouse-Lautrec in the dust. Picasso is decades late to the party. So be it. Parisian night life, clowns, whisps of Velázquez and El Greco, mothers and babies, classical sculpture: the deader the iconography, the more life he squeezes out.

Being a fish out of water is the theme of the most valuable anniversary show I saw this year, the Gagosian gallery’s “A Foreigner Called Picasso, ” co-curated by Anna Cohen-Solal, and inspired by her book on the theme. Her core argument goes something like this: Picasso’s career can be understood as one long reaction to being treated, in Paris, as a smelly leftist intruder. During the First World War, the French government seized hundreds of his Cubist paintings on the suspicion that they were somehow politically radical, or at least German. Major French museums refused to display his art for decades; the reason “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” is hanging in MOMA today is that the Louvre said no. The police kept a fat file on him, and, in 1940, after he’d lived in Paris for almost forty years, the immigration authorities denied him citizenship.

I walked out believing that the principal emotion underlying Picasso’s art was fury, and not only with France. It would be too easy to say that he moved away from Cubism, in the nineteen-twenties, because he was sick of having his canvases confiscated, but it can’t have hurt—I imagine him putting the finishing touches on “Buste de Femme, les Bras Levés” (1922), a tame grisaille portrait of a woman who may in fact be an ancient statue, and muttering, “Confiscate that!” Elsewhere, the fury seems aimed at the accident of his own birth in backwater Spain. A friend described Picasso racing through galleries in the Louvre “like a hound in search of game,” one of the many anecdotes suggesting that his life’s ambition was to swallow art history whole. “Buste de Femme” hangs in the second main section of the Gagosian’s show, alongside various works made between 1919 and 1939: a Surrealist Minotaur, an anti-Francoist cartoon strip, a zipper-mouthed harpy. The implicit subject is always the artist himself, the alien to whom nothing is alien as long as he can make a picture out of it.

Many of Picasso’s paintings are thought to convey fury with women. That seems correct but incomplete—it’s more like fury with the entire physical universe for not looking all the ways he wants it to look, or fury with himself for failing to paint them all at once. Most art says, This is how it is. A Picasso like “Femme dans un Fauteuil” (1927) says, This is one way it could be. The woman in this painting is a ball of clay to be squished by the artist, and so is the chair she’s curled into and the room she’s in. So is pretty much everything in Picasso, the most materialist of great artists. At least for me, the chief delight of his work is the realization, prompted even by his doodles, that the material world is a form of magic we’ve been brainwashed into taking for granted. The horror is that there’s nothing but material, no soul or inner mystery or even thought, nothing for an artist to do but go on rearranging. Horror and delight commingle in the enormous, faux-neoclassical painting “Three Women at the Spring” (1921), on display as part of MOMA’s “Picasso in Fontainebleau.” I can’t think of another image in which people a few inches apart look this distant; they’re staring through, not at, each other. The good news is that distance and emptiness don’t add up to lifelessness. Two dimensions have never looked hardier (even the clothes have breaths and heartbeats!), because everything this painter sees is alive.

During his last quarter century, Picasso was the most famous artist in the world, worshipped by people who wouldn’t have spat on him a decade prior. When Charles de Gaulle offered him the Legion of Honor, he declined, but no amount of symbolic refusing could change the fact that he’d won. There’s something a notch too complacent in much of his later work, in which talent growls and snarls but has less to oppose. Often, one detects a mothball whiff of postwar “The Family of Man”-style humanism: at Pace, currently exhibiting fourteen of his sketchbooks, you’ll find reproductions of a pair of murals he completed in 1952, one devoted to the theme of war, the other to peace, each too syrupy to persuade. The war one, mainly because of a peculiar lack of malice in the figures’ faces, has more to say about children dressing up as soldiers than about actual combat. One “Guernica,” I suppose, is enough to expect from anybody.

But, if his later works aren’t the best Picassos or the most exciting, they may well be the purest. With his big external struggles resolved, his inner ones are left as naked as a newborn. He’s more obsessed with the art of the past than ever; between 1954 and 1955, he painted fifteen variations on Delacroix’s soft, shimmery “The Women of Algiers in Their Apartment,” the greatest of which is the last. One way to think about this image is to ask whether it’s meant to be a caricature of the original. There’s no shortage of evidence for yes: the breasts and buttocks like googly eyes, the jagged planes making nonsense of Delacroix’s hushed eroticism. Yet the woman on the left has a monumental, sphinxlike power well beyond what’s in the original, and the room itself has a whirlpool’s roaring suction. Things are distorted, but not all diminished.

Confronted with this, you see how much fun Picasso has without sacrificing a sense of awe—a decent definition of the Picassoesque, in fact, might be the sensibility that sees no distinction between mockery and worship. Carpets, bodies, doorways, and Delacroix’s paintings, according to this cosmology, are all just stuff, but that’s no insult. To the kid from Málaga, the world is gross and klutzy, but also intoxicating and quite possibly divine. (The one thing it isn’t is respectable, the only people who care about respectability being the kinds who kept “Demoiselles” out of the Louvre.) You can see, too, how misleading this artist’s reputation is—he’s not the shaman-Modernist who makes it new so much as the museum scavenger who barely bothers distinguishing between old and new, because they all belong to him, anyway. Arrogant, if you insist, though I find a gruff humility in the way he refuses to be aloof from art history—he’s too jazzed to think of it as history at all.

And now, with Picasso history, too? As anyone who’s been to a contemporary-art museum can tell you, the repurposed fragment is in tip-top shape, not that Picasso had a thing to do with it. It’s the aloof, Duchampian kind of repurposing that dominates today, yesterday’s images handled with surgical gloves—a mustache on the “Mona Lisa,” a silk-screened “Last Supper,” a stainless-steel Bernini. Most of this kind of thing, like most of anything, is mediocre, but its popularity suits an era half-paralyzed by a sense of its own lateness. Picasso preferred to get his hands dirty. Toulouse-Lautrec, ancient sculptors, and all the rest were both rivals and allies in the pursuit of a good picture, and, in this year of Picasso mania and Picasso renunciation, that’s worth keeping in mind. “Now we know better” is a reasonable-sounding idea when applied to science or politics, but a dicey one in art. ♦


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