Picasso: Challenging the Past
Monday 09 March 2009
Exhibition: CHRISTINE LINDEY witnesses modernism in the making with a return to the very roots.
SO prolific an artist was Pablo Picasso that it makes sense to focus on a single aspect of his output. This exhibition explores how he pitted himself against the past.
This may seem odd since his works have epitomised modernism. When he and Georges Braque invented Cubism a century ago they found the visual language with which to speak of their own day in its own unique way.
Picasso later combined this with expressionist distortion and surrealist surprise to convey the preoccupations and ethos of the first half of the 20th century.
Yet it was the previous century that had shaped him. Born in 1881, Picasso was already 19 when he first visited Paris in 1900.
He was as steeped in the art of the past as were most artists who were educated around that time.
Throughout his life, his conversation was peppered with references to past artists including the Greco-Romans, Poussin, Rembrandt, Velazquez, Goya, Manet, Ingres and Cezanne.
Picasso referred to past art in his subject matter, composition and style, sometimes as subversive taunts to the received orthodoxies which they had come to represent, sometimes as homage and sometimes as a complex and contradictory mix of the two.
For example, Guernica borrows from Poussin‘s, David‘s and Goya‘s moving indictments of the horrors of war while using modernist shallow space and distortions of form and scale to convey a 20th century sense of urgency and heightened emotional impact.
In its original state at the Grand Palais in Paris, the exhibition had the actual works referred to by Picasso hanging alongside his own in a spectacular and enlightening feat of curating.
I looked forward to seeing the exhibition again when it travelled to London. But we only get Picasso’s paintings in the National Gallery, so the exhibition unfortunately misses its own objective.
The display and accompanying booklet do encourage us to go on to look at works by artists who influenced Picasso in the National Gallery’s permanent collection.
But this excludes African and Oceanic art, which were crucial influences. Moreover, it is a lame substitute for truly engaging in a visual dialogue between the old and new.
For example, observing Picasso’s nudes alongside idealised ones which were commissioned by rich men from Titian or Ingres allows one to understand more fully Picasso’s angry cries for truth against the contradictory forces of male desire.
The savage distortions of his late, tormented nudes convey raw physicality while the more lyrical nudes speak of wistful tenderness. None, however, masquerade as mythical goddesses.
Yet the smaller scale and focus of the London exhibition has the unintended consequence of offering us a pleasurably digestible introduction to Picasso’s painting.
Each room includes works spanning his entire career which are organised according to some of his major subjects including self portraits, still lifes, nudes and variations on iconic works from the past.
In this way, the exhibition manages to provide a focused overview of the sheer range of Picasso’s stylistic inventiveness and restless refusal to be straight-jacketed into a single way of seeing.
Subtlety may not have been Picasso’s strongest point, but he was a profoundly humane artist.
He concentrated on the fundamental themes of birth, sex, death, war and peace, seizing them by the jugular and conveying them with the realist’s unblinking refusal to ignore harshness and hardship.
Surprisingly, some of the most powerful works at the exhibition are the still lifes.
Undistracted by the emotiveness of the human form, the cubist figures allow for concentrated experimentation with form, line and space.
The stylistically simpler wartime images, in which human or animal skulls placed next to frugal domestic objects become metaphors for the horrors and privations of nazi occupation, are painful to look at, so powerfully do they convey their meanings.
But Picasso’s political commitment to the Spanish republic and to communism are ignored. So are his sculptures which, together with his prints, are arguably his strongest works, although a few of the latter are displayed free of charge in a separate room where you can peruse them next to two Rembrandt prints which inspired them.
If you can afford to, then go. It is a golden opportunity to study paintings by one of the giants of Modernism.
Exhibition runs until June 7. Price £12 concession/senior £11, Tuesday afternoons £6, unemployed/students £6, under-12s free.