The Picasso Variations

The Picasso Variations

Why the painter’s late work veers from the sloppy to the sublime.


As usual, Yogi Berra put it best: “Nobody goes there anymore,” he said of a once-popular restaurant. “It’s too crowded.” These days, it’s easy to feel that way about Picasso. For half a century, he bestrode the landscape of modern art like a Colossus, but that half-century ended half a century ago, well before his death, in the era when Minimalism, Pop art, Fluxus and the like were working (not necessarily with success) to cut the tense, taut cord that tied modernist painting to a longer, deeper tradition. Today, artists are more likely to claim a lineage from Marcel Duchamp or, if they’re trying to keep the former tradition in play, to see its main line running through Henri Matisse. Picasso, though he is still the popular byword for “famous artist,” has been sidelined.

And yet how crowded a territory falls under his banner. He’s said to have made some 50,000 works in his long lifetime—not only paintings, sculpture, collages and drawings, but also prints of every variety, ceramics and more—and some of them are always being exhibited somewhere or other. But this fall, Picassoiana was overwhelmingly evident in New York City, with large-scale exhibitions at Gagosian Gallery (“Picasso & the Camera,” curated by the artist’s biographer, John Richardson—a show whose checklist runs to 356 items, of which about a hundred are paintings, sculptures and drawings by the artist) and Pace Gallery (“Picasso & Jacqueline: The Evolution of Style,” with nearly 140 works on view at two of the gallery’s locations through January 10), not to mention “Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where approximately thirty of Picasso’s works from the years 1906 through 1916 can be seen alongside pieces from the same period by Georges Braque, Juan Gris and Fernand Léger, through February 16.

No one exhibition can hope to give an overview of such an oeuvre; at best, you can hope for something that makes partial sense. After my first visit to “Picasso & the Camera,” I’d have been ready to admit being almost impressed by the show’s failure to make any sense at all. That wouldn’t have been quite fair, though; partly, I was put off by the over-the-top design of the exhibition, which made me feel like I’d just walked into a World’s Fair pavilion rather than an art gallery. (The designer is David Korins, whose usual line of work is Broadway musicals.) It seemed impossible to focus on anything, to find an order beneath the visual razzmatazz of the diagonal columns and the blown-up photomurals and the seemingly innumerable paintings, drawings, sculptures, and lots and lots of photographs scattered chockablock everywhere. I high-tailed it out of the gallery but later made another attempt, and I was not sorry I did. There was, after all, a sort of order to the jumble: it is arranged as a roughly chronological survey of over sixty years of Picasso’s paintings and drawings, from just after the start of the last century to just before the artist’s death in 1973. The exhibition is not an ideal art-history textbook come to life, as the Museum of Modern Art might have staged it, but it does include some extraordinary loans that most museums would have trouble wangling. At the center, inside those temporary walls festooned with serried ranks of yet more artwork, films were projected: documentaries and home movies from the Picasso posse. Most of the show’s photographs were in the vitrines situated between the walls and the little film theater.

But while the exhibition’s general setup had a logic to it, the reason for the selection of these works and images still seems mostly inexplicable. In a sense, the problem lies in the conjunction of the exhibition’s title: &. What kind of connection is being proposed by this symbol, not even fully spelled out, between Picasso and camera?

There are two possible answers. The first concerns the creation of “Picasso” as a public image and the importance to photography to the making of the icon, or what we’ve now learned to call a brand. Picasso the painter is one part of this identity, but so is Picasso the aficionado of the corrida, Picasso the lover, and so on; we experience again and again the intensity of his gaze, the bareness of his chest, his bull-like physique. It’s all summed up by a picture of Picasso (included in the catalog, but for some reason not in the exhibit) in which he is photographed being photographed: in a 1956 shot by André Villers, we glimpse the artist in his garden, dressed in white like a secular pope, as Paul Strand takes his picture—for surely the most important activity of a celebrity is to be photographed, if possible by a celebrated photographer.

The downside of celebrity is that after you’ve enjoyed the excitement that comes from this flood of imagery washing over you, you feel half-drowned, gasping for air; and when you’ve caught your breath again, the whole thing seems ridiculous. Yes, there are a few unforgettable images among the mass of portraits that were made of Picasso in the ’50s and ’60s, first among them perhaps that famous 1954 closeup by Arnold Newman in which the artist holds one hand over his face, hiding one eye in shadow as if to defend it from the glare of the very attention he’d been seeking. But quantity trumps quality here. Photographs from the period before World War II are more engaging because they’re less obviously caught up in the hype machine—take, for example, Boris Kochno’s lyrically atmospheric shots of sculpture in the studio from around 1931. Picasso’s own snapshots are no more interesting than anyone else’s, but for the little glimpse they give into the daily life of a man we’ve been trained to be curious about.

Did the camera condition Picasso’s visual sensibility? I’m not convinced, any more than I was in 2007 when Pace mounted an exhibition on “Picasso, Braque and Early Film in Cubism.” The impressive catalog for “Picasso & the Camera” reprints Paul Hayes Tucker’s 1982 scholarly essay “Picasso, Photography, and the Development of Cubism.” Tucker’s conclusions are properly tentative, with lots of might-have-beens and may-also-haves throughout. In the gallery itself, there is a near-complete disconnect between photography and painting. The show could best be appreciated for its selection of mostly minor but fascinating and rarely seen works, such as a 1931 Visage sculptural in which Picasso seems to fuse two heads into a single entity. As Richardson points out in the catalog, this follows up on a series of photographs that the painter had made of a couple of his sculptures; but the main point is that this fusion through painting “took far less time and trouble than did making the sculpture.” On the other hand, a series of collage-based collotypes that Picasso made in collaboration with Villers in 1962 is minor without being fascinating—a group of goofy fantasy heads that were probably more fun to make than to think about afterward.

* * *

Perhaps surprisingly, Pace’s “Picasso & Jacqueline” turns out to be the more substantial of the two gallery exhibitions. I’d expected more from Richardson, the man who knows more about Picasso than anyone else (and is apparently still going strong at 90—Picasso would have approved). And the idea of yet another show presenting Picasso through the history of his love life—Richardson has committed a few of those too, before confessing to The New York Times that he had to stop because “I’d run out of women”—seems so unimaginative. But Picasso spent the last twenty years of his life with Jacqueline Roque and painted her obsessively, so there was plenty of material to work with—and what material Pace has assembled! Not only important loans from institutions like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Detroit Institute of Arts, but any number of significant and rarely seen pieces from private collections have been gathered to show the artist thriving in old age. If it’s really true that at the end, as Richardson once wrote, Picasso’s last works “are helter-skelter to the point of sloppiness—speed painting” in which he often moves on from one work to the next “long before any valid pictorial solution was in sight,” you wouldn’t know it from either of these exhibitions: the works from 1971 that conclude both are highlights.

Picasso was 72, Roque only 27 when they met in 1952. They became lovers little more than a year later, and he began painting her a year after that (they were married in 1961). The earliest of the portraits on view here, dated June 2, 1954, features the rather brittle, linear style typical of Picasso’s postwar period, though something a bit more fluid is revealed in the loosely painted foliage and flowers in the background. Other early drawings and paintings of Roque try out a colorless naturalism that discouragingly harks back to the years before Cubism. Interestingly, a portrait made on October 9, 1954—Jacqueline With Legs Folded—shows Picasso tentatively essaying an approximation of Matisse’s odalisques.

In December of that year, Picasso began a series of variations on Delacroix’s Women of Algiers; these extraordinary paintings are as much a response to Matisse as to their professed nineteenth-century Romantic forebear—and, plausibly enough, Picasso would intimate that this became emotionally possible following the death of his great rival that November. “When Matisse died, he left his odalisques to me as a legacy,” Picasso said. “After all, why shouldn’t one inherit something from one’s friends?” There was certainly truth to this, but it wasn’t the whole truth, for Jacqueline With Legs Folded shows that Picasso was fishing in Matisse’s waters even before his passing.

With the series of Women of Algiers (After Delacroix)—Pace shows us no fewer than five of the paintings, as well as related prints and a drawing—Picasso entered a new phase of his art. He had always been an avid and able pasticheur of past styles, willingly giving the lie to the myth of progress that so many had read into his and Braque’s research in Cubism. But the Women of Algiers paintings are different: a kind of return to the intensive research paradigm of the heroic years of Cubism before the Great War, which Picasso now deployed to revisit, revise and sometimes explode the past with the full force of his profound ambivalence. In his essay for the Pace catalog, Jonathan Fineberg compares this effort to Beethoven’s in composing the Diabelli Variations, “obsessively reinventing” his source (even though Diabelli’s harmless little ditty was easy prey for Beethoven’s pummeling), unlike Delacroix’s orientalist masterpiece. In the Algiers paintings, Picasso attempted to fragment and artificially recompose not just space and its objects (as in Cubism) but time and its beings as well. He was tearing Delacroix’s work apart and reconstructing it with fascination, ardor and hostility all at once.

It’s with these variations that the late phase of Picasso’s career begins, and the Pace exhibition showcases that late phase more successfully than it tells us anything about the artist’s relationship with Roque or how she affected what the subtitle calls “the evolution of style.” Unlike Françoise Gilot, her immediate predecessor, or Dora Maar (who as an accomplished photographer stands as the quiet muse for “Picasso & the Camera”), Roque was not herself an artist. Her contribution to Picasso’s art may have been what she kept out rather than what she put in: she helped keep the world at a greater remove, distraction at bay, abetting the insane productivity of Picasso’s last decades. An unusual painting dated January 25, 1965, shows a female nude in the act of painting. Who is she? Presumably not Roque. But if this represents a rare moment in which Picasso was able to make an act of identification whereby painter and model—one of his great themes in these years—somehow become one, the moment did not last as long as the act of making the painting: Picasso’s interest seems to peter out just where the nude painter’s hand is touching her brush to the canvas (as if painting herself into existence). The idea is dropped almost as soon as it is broached.

That the painting falls apart at the desired point of contact, where the painting-within-the-painting and the painting itself become indistinguishable, tells us something about Picasso’s late style. Eroticism had always been the primary vehicle for his sometimes desperate need to overcome solipsism and make contact with the world beyond his ego, but here it is touch itself that holds the key to the success or failure of this effort. In The Painter and His Model (October 26 and November 3, 1964), the artist seems uncertain about how to complete the act of conjuring the model into being—and she’s not happy about it. Yet the moment of indecisiveness is the one that gives life to their interaction, allowing her to overflow the canvas into the reality in which he paints, whereas his free hand has migrated onto the canvas to caress her chin. More usual, though, for Picasso’s painter-and-model compositions is a horizontal disposition that keeps the two figures in their own zones, with the canvas defining the boundary between them. Curiously, the painter is always on the left, the model on the right—he is the origin, she the goal. There is an exception: one of several variations that Picasso painted in 1961 of Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass. Here, the man on the right is a self-portrait, and his inviting gesture toward his companions on the left—or rather, toward the nude woman with whom he is sharing his idyll, as the other man in Manet’s composition has been banished from Picasso’s remake—clearly echoes the gesture with which the painter addresses his canvas, but with the brush missing.

* * *

Picasso was well aware of his difficulty overcoming the solitude that others called “genius.” In 1940, he wrote: “a pretty face even that of the beloved is only a flame of solitaire the symptom prefiguring the mass of tangled threads of a system to be built whatever the cost.” But it was in neither wife nor lover that he escaped the prison of ego; it was in his collaboration with Georges Braque. “Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection” reminds us that the prime mover in the invention of Cubism was the stolid Braque, even if Picasso, the more mercurial of the pair, went further with it. As Jack Flam writes in the catalog, Braque sought “a kind of painting that was more clearly based on ideas that could make a new claim to truth”—that is, “a realm that is material, yet dominated by a pervasive geometry emblematic of the world of thought.” As this idea developed and Picasso began collaborating in the effort, it came to mean a kind of painting in which the dialectic between an underlying material reality and the ever-changing state of its subjective apprehension through perception, thought and memory remained open and on display—which could never be the case with a “finished” representation, but only with one in which the element of temporality was made evident.

The two artists, so distinct in sensibility, worked closely together for some four years while they shared this common project: an investigation into how the world becomes appearance, which meant trying to expose the mechanisms behind appearance rather than rendering its surfaces. It was during this period that Picasso acquired the reputation of taking a conceptual approach toward painting. The German artist Max Pechstein, for instance, described him in 1912 as “an intellectual, ruminating over the language of form.” It’s hard to credit this statement from the perspective of Picasso’s later works, so riven by naked emotional need, and Cubism can seem almost a sidetrack to his main line of development—albeit one whose value is as great as all the rest put together—unless one keeps in mind this striving toward a tactile engagement with things through painting. This tendency showed itself first in Picasso’s Cubism and was never stronger thereafter, though it became more complicated and conflicted.

Picasso might be the only painter whose works need to be identified by date rather than simply by year. His immense production, in which he so often seems to be cranking out one indistinguishable avatar of himself after another in vain, is proof of a compulsion to make time itself into something for the painter to handle as material. Toward the end of his life, he remarked that he didn’t want to go out in the car anymore, “because some imbecile will overtake me, he’ll run into me and I have still got a lot of paintings to do.” This is more than an old man’s understandable fear of death; it is more like a fear for the world itself, a sense that it will only continue to exist if he can keep painting it into being. But to the extent that some of his paintings maintain contact with time as an active element in our grasp of the world, they do help keep it alive. He needn’t have worried so.

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