Pablo Picasso: Challenging the Spin
A ‘combative encounter’ with Picasso and grovelling art-speak.
The National Gallery’s exhibition Picasso: Challenging the Past provided London tourists and many people in Britain with a chance to view a substantial body of work by the celebrated Spaniard for the first (and perhaps only) time.
I’m not Picasso’s greatest admirer and I went to this exhibition armed with my usual misgivings about the nature of Pablo Picasso’s so-called ‘genius’. Whilst I haven’t previously seen many of Picasso’s paintings in the raw, the ones I did make efforts to view, including Guernica, didn’t exactly scorch the depths of my being. Anyhow, it was an opportunity too close to home to be missed
It is one of art’s great clichés that Picasso was one of the (if not THE) most influential artists of the 20th century. But how you see his influence on the world of art depends on your understanding of what the true essence, purpose and pinnacle of art actually is.
For the sake of my own simple mind, I sometimes imagine art through the ages as being one long tapestry through time, on which the (varying shades of) genius of each generation has left its indelible mark. When we get to the beginning of the last century, much of the tapestry starts to get cloudy, as can be seen in Claude Monet’s ‘Water-Lillies’ in Tate Modern. Brush strokes then fragment as isms and ists spring up like toadstools after a rain, and art’s tapestry is blurred by murky footnotes and textual spin. Judging purely from Picasso’s paintings in The National Gallery exhibition, he was quick to seize upon deconstruction and what unfolded through the six rooms was less like a painter eagerly ‘responding’ to the past’s rich tapestry, as one ripping out the threads and re-weaving them to suit his own ends. And whilst the styles may flutter, the hub of the work on the walls was unchanging.
Two defining facets of genius are these:
Firstly, that it rarely (if ever) comes via a committee’s approval, and secondly, that compromise makes an uneasy bedfellow.
As a consequence genius is rarely seduced by the cult of mediocrity and the game of numbers. Indeed, owing to its nature genius cannot join the club or submit to the straight jacket of mediocrity, because the soul of genius is forged in temperatures where mediocrity cannot survive (and which removes the impurities).
So, for the Revolution of the Mediocritat to succeed in art, the ‘liberation from formal convention‘ had to be affected before the abstract tyrannists could enforce a truer ‘liberation from talent and skill‘. Once these obstacles (rules, conventions, prerequisite’s: call them what you will) were shifted, the void (is) was (and always will be) filled by those who were both attuned to the possibilities and had the guile to both shape and profit from them.
This isn’t to say that the shift away from art’s old school arbitrators wasn’t a passionate, heartfelt revolution for some, and that many Gimmickists were not sincere in their efforts to exhibit without prejudice and (un)invent the colour wheel.
But as in every revolution, one power class merely makes way for another: the pinchbeck Machiavellis sidle through in the slipstream of foot soldiers, then start shaping a new salon in their own favour. Wittingly or not, art was freed from many of the underlying principles of excellence and, as in the laissez faire Friedmanomics that have been encouraged to bankrupt our finances, a kind of survival of the ugliest ensued, in which the rules were (and are) forever (re)written by those who plotted, networked and politicked their way to positions of power and influence.
Anyhow, by playing his role in the unravelling of art’s unending tapestry, Picasso, arguably more than any other painter, made it possible to chuck up a major wall-filler in a minor window of opportunity. And in purveying novelty-over-skill and celebrity-over-substance, crazy-paved the way for Warhol and cultural undertakers Hirst, Emin & Price to profit from the burying of art’s dead.
I mean, why waste years on one masterpiece when you can reinvent the wheels of art industry and piece together three-score-and-ten major minors, in the time it takes real masters to master one masterpiece?
What a position to have engineered!
It must be quite a high for a painter, to know that whatever they chuck up onto canvas will sell for buckets of money. In a way, you can’t blame Picasso for adding weight to the ‘school’ that allowed painters to pass a ‘masterpiece’ between toilets, and he doubtless would’ve rattled off a few saleable gems in the time it has taken to wrestle this (albeit trifling) collection of impressions and expressive distortions into some kind of coherent whole.
Not stupid, the proud old bull. Unless you seek your value beyond coinage and your worth beyond fame.
Whether Picasso merely rode the first waves of fashion art, or whether he drove them like the moon and the wind, is, like most things Pablovian, up for debate. But we never find out the extent of the skill and talent that lay within, because the ever-changing needs of fashion demoted talent and skill to a minor part of the frame. What remained was novelty and the saleable fashions of the hour.
You’ll be aware by now that, for the sake of brevity, I’m piling high the metaphors and flinging them cheap. But I am sincerely believe that art of the highest obliterates barriers, and can transport the willing spirit of even the lowliest spectator to the essence of the spectacle. It goes without saying that such a feat is not achievable by merely throwing paint at a canvas and parcelling it up in the pretentious, sub-prime gobshite that adorns the walls of every Turner Prize.
On the contrary, great work is given a better life by the willingness of the artist to surrender his skills to the subject, and the soul of a skilled work grows in direct relation to the artist’s subordination of his talents to the spirit of something greater than ego or mere design. Regardless of whether the subject is inside or outside the artist’s head, or born of reality or untamed imagination, it is a basic requirement that (s)he at least surrender to the creative process. And if, within that act of surrender, you are caught by a flame that transports you above your baser interests, then magic can happen and the page or canvas can take on varying shades and degrees of fullness.
However, with Picasso’s work I always feel the opposite has happened and that his subjects are merely pawns, which are sacrificed for the greater good of Pablo. Yes, Picasso seems incapable of giving himself to the subject and I couldn’t find one picture in the National Gallery’s exhibition that bore witness to more than the man’s ego.
An example of this difference was provided by Picasso’s ‘Child with a Dove’, which I saw in the Scottish National Gallery’s inappropriately named (though very good) ‘Impressionists in Scotland’ exhibition some years back, where it was made to look lifeless and dull by the company it had been forced to keep, not least amongst which was A Portrait of Joseph Crawhall by Edward Arthur Walton.
This unassuming painting is an absolute jewel, and a wonderful demonstration of an artist both at home with his gift and willing to offer it up in friendship, as ‘a portrait of J.C the Impressionist by A.E.W the Realist‘ (the words Walton inscribed on the canvas).
Jules Bastien Lepage’s ‘The Barge Boy’
The Barge Boy in Jules Bastien-Lepage’s ‘Pas Meche’ is also given a value beyond mere marketplace coinage, as he stares us out down the years.
‘What you looking at?’ the boy may well ask. You, my friend. For the gift of life you still bring to the canvas because the gift was offered up on your behalf. In both of these paintings I am humbled by the greatness of the seemingly insignificant, and know that the artist has done justice to the subject because the very subject is given precedence.
Great work ennobles a subject worthy of it, and through a selfless transfusion of artistic juices, the work achieves a life of its own.
But whatever moves the artist moves the paint and Picasso is the centre of his (kn)own universe: as a consequence, he merely bestows his greatness upon his subjects in suitably recognizable strokes. With this method, a kind of disembowelment of the human spirit takes place, before Pablo embalms the carcass in the shallowness of his lesser juices.
At the bottom of the stairs to the Sainsbury Wing, a huge photographic image of Pablo towered above the entrance for the duration of the National Gallery’s Picasso exhibition. This paparazzo-style photo was taken at St Tropez’s Sénéquier Cafe in 1965 and, in both size and tone, the image makes you fully aware that this is the age of celebrity-worship and at no point of the Picasso exhibition did this feeling abate.
Picasso’s paintings, like the man, have attained considerable celebrity, and as fame-by-association is rampant, it is now enough to say that you have been to an exhibition: coherent opinions and dissenting viewpoints are neither encouraged nor required. As with artists, paintings are famous for being famous and many visitors to exhibitions are immersing themselves in the essence of art celebrity and the value of currency, not searching for meaning in scrabbled faces, nor finding love in the mauling strokes with which Picasso splayed his women.
Picasso’s Las Meninas
Las Meninas is Picasso’s testament to his (belief in his) own greatness and it’s the one piece that should prove his undoing. Picasso’s so-called ‘combative encounter with Velasquez’s Las Meninas provided more than 50 canvasses’. The fact that Picasso regurgitated 50 variations of Las Meninas in 4 months, which would make one ‘masterpiece’ every two or three days, tells you quite a lot about the man and his shifty method. The development of the original idea apart, I wonder how many variations Diego could’ve knocked out in four months? Not many…unless he hijacked some passing bandwagon that conveniently relieved him of paying life duties on the gift of genius, consequently liberating him from having to render his big idea with dizzying skill and talent.
In Las Meninas Picasso enforces a Gimmickist format, turning a true masterpiece into a slysdexic’s interpretation of ‘Where’s Prince Wally?’ for bored Spanish Royals. But such is the success of Pablo Incorporated, and the apparatchiks who are prepared to heap meaning onto his strokes, utterances and silences, that learned donkeys nod on our behalf and we mutely accept their interpretation of another masterpiece which tries, in spite of the spin, to be everything but.
And whereas SHAKESPEARE can be forgiven for ‘stealing’ good ideas, because he rendered them timeless (by making them more than they otherwise could’ve been), Picasso’s ego renders the ideas of his betters lifeless and soulless. I found myself wondering what Diego would make of Picasso’s ‘expressive distortions’ of his masterpiece?
Well? Would he rush off to the nearest ‘purveyor of orthodoxy’ to brush up on the latest vague and meaningless art-speak, so he may better understand the working of this re-worked re-working (of a previous re-working) of his masterpiece?
Nah. Methinks if he didn’t pee laughing he’d die crying. More likely he’d paint over it, which would deny the marketplace some coin but the rest of humanity would lose nothing.
If, as was proclaimed by the film The Usual Suspects, ‘the Devil’s greatest trick was to convince the world that he didn’t exist’, then Pablo’s most masterful slight of intention was getting so many to believe that this stuff actually matters. And we are still in his thrall after all these years, incapable, it seems, of freeing ourselves from the ‘facets’ of spin in which both he and his entourage have enslaved us.
We go, we pay, we look. Yet little is seen other than that which has been drawn up to intimidate us by profiteers on the money-go-round, and for fear of looking unlearned and stupid, we stay schtum. Best to nod with the other donkeys and hope nobody asks us to explain our appreciation for the Emperor’s new clothes, when simple courage and honesty would speak volumes more.
On my way towards the exit The Rape of the Sabine Women (after Poussin) demanded some attention. To my unlearned and uncluttered eyes, the upside down Sabine woman at the foot of the picture represented something truly worthy, and the horse towering above her looked like a proud, destructive Minotaur trampling her under foot. I had a sudden urge to grip hold of the frame and spin things the right way up.
But in an upside down world, who would ever notice?
And who the hell would care?