Masterpieces -- and other pieces

Blockbuster Picasso show in Richmond must be seen, but it's not all masterpieces

by Jeffry Cudlin
The Washington Post
Sunday, February 27, 2011

Read the full article at

IN RICHMOND Some art careers are cut short by alcoholism, drugs or the dark fog of depression. Not so with Pablo Picasso: His main vice was the studio itself. Toward the end of his 92 years, Picasso was still working eight-hour days, sometimes staying up past 2 a.m. to finish a canvas. Estimates of the Spanish-born, Paris-based artist's lifetime output hover around 50,000 artworks - a jaw-dropping number.

"There's never a time when you can say, 'I've worked well and tomorrow is Sunday,' " the artist once said. "As soon as you stop, you start over."

Producing was never the problem. Instead, what declined was Picasso's ability to make art that mattered, speaking to anything other than his own tastes, compulsions and restlessness.

Not everyone agrees when Picasso's art jumped the shark. Some say 1919, when he exhibited two bodies of work together in Paris - revealing that he'd been two-timing Cubism, the avant-garde movement he and Georges Braque created, and was producing neoclassical realism on the side.

British art historian Simon Schama points to 1937, when "Guernica," Picasso's anti-fascist elegy, appeared at the Paris World's Fair. After "Guernica" comes a three-decade slide that Schama calls "the longest, saddest anticlimax in the history of art."

In the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts's installation of the traveling show "Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musee National Picasso, Paris," that anticlimax - lasting from 1937 to 1973 - takes up about half of the galleries. For better or worse, the show draws from every decade in which Picasso brought fractured spaces and distorted bodies into being.

"Masterpieces," which opened this month and runs through May 15, is a significant cross section of Picasso's career: 176 pieces, including drawings, paintings, sculptures, prints and photos. It is the only East Coast opportunity to view the collection. It's a blockbuster that demands to be seen, offering ample evidence of Picasso's ability to generate affecting sensual experiences.

What the show doesn't do is explain the artist's relationship to art history. Viewers trying to untangle Picasso's complicated legacy won't get much help from curator Anne Baldassari - who, despite providing elegant groupings of works and clever touches of exhibit design, doesn't offer a new argument for the man or his art.

"Masterpieces" is arranged chronologically, and divides Picasso's life into more or less equivalent units. It illustrates that Picasso never stopped making Picassos. Unfortunately, he did stop producing masterpieces. The good stuff is mostly in the first four rooms. The remaining six are a mixed bag. African influence

The first great painting here is Picasso's 1901 death portrait of his friend Casegamas. Its collision of naturalism and overstatement recalls Van Gogh: Casegamas's profile is sensitively rendered; crude, thick strokes of slathered paint convey a candle in the background. The dead painter's ghastly green face is limned by yellow highlights; the background is a flurry of red marks. Here, at age 20, Picasso manifests the key elements of his art: his gift for line, his penchant for drama, his disregard for color.

For Picasso, line mattered most. This is clear throughout the blue period - his populist, sentimental phase, represented here by "Celestina (the Woman With One Eye)" (1904). There's barely anything to it: a black shroud, a blue backdrop and the wan face of a haggard woman with a cataract. The payoff is Picasso's fluttering line, defining a smirking mouth, a shock of silvery hair and one wary eye.

At the beginning, Picasso was a classicist; then he was in thrall to Impressionism. Then, in 1907, he visited the ethnographic museum at Palais du Trocadero and saw African masks.

"Three Figures Beneath a Tree" (1907-8) features women with lidless almond-shaped eyes, and faces with strange concave surfaces - depicted in a shallow stage set full of sharp wrinkles and ridges. Bodies and background become difficult to disentangle.

In African art, had found what he deemed useful distortions. This art granted him license to do as he pleased with bodies, space and likenesses. That freedom was the starting point for Cubism.

Given that Picasso's reputation rests most on the Cubist period, it's odd to see so little of it here. There are two strong paintings from the movement's first phase: "Man With a Guitar" (1911) and "Man With a Mandolin" (1911). A century later, these pictures still feel ugly, ominous, tough. Picasso reduced his palette to dingy grays and browns. The curves from the African period are now sliced to bits by straight lines surrounded by pointillist marks - not quite shading; not quite color. Picasso claimed there was no purely abstract art, but here he had set painting loose from anecdotal description of anything.

Just around the corner are swollen titans: massive women, fanning themselves with sausage-like fingers. At this crucial moment, Picasso groped backward, imitating the Farnese Hercules statue he had seen on a trip to Naples, or the torqued nudes created by the 19th century neoclassicist Ingres.

Some view Picasso's use of different historical styles as a forerunner of postmodernism. But to Picasso, all art-historical sources were equivalent. Only formal devices mattered; context didn't. Everything Picasso saw or created from mid-career on really conveyed one urgent message: All art is about sex and death. Especially sex.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the show's sixth room. Here, Picasso delivers surrealist images of convulsing female flesh. "Nude in a Garden" (1934) is a swollen magenta-hued mass of sexually available weirdness, more voluptuous and troubling than any Willem de Kooning "Woman" painting. The bronze female heads in this room, arrayed on a long, low platform, morph into animal crests and crude genitalia. It's as though Picasso were decoding polite abstract art for us, announcing it all boils down to carnal desperation.

Works of mystery
What Picasso couldn't seem to do from this point on was engage the world beyond his studio or his bedroom. Take, for example, "Massacre in Korea," his clumsy 1951 attempt at agitprop. A protest against U.S. involvement in the Korean War, the seven-foot-long piece features Dada-esque cyborgs and medieval knights as soldiers, threatening women who appear to have wandered in from paintings done a decade earlier.

In the show's final room, Baldassari offers an unusual scene: A slide show of images of Picasso, producing his 1956 "Bathers" sculptures, is projected on one wall. The sculptures themselves - skinny, crude, perfunctory - are the audience, facing the projection.

Viewers could read this as a metaphor for Picasso's influence: He initiated so much modernist tradition that he's arguably the creator of all artists since - and, to a certain extent, of us all.

But the tableau can be read another way: Picasso's offspring stare at their father, the force of nature who worked, and worked, and worked, never questioning his own motives too closely. They await insights into their reasons for existing.

As Picasso got older, his explanations for his work became more general. His art was a form of magical performance, yielding objects he could neither anticipate nor understand. The result was a manic tussle with mystery.

Picasso created to the very end, obsessed with making another painting, another sculpture. The content of his work became limited, personal and obscure - until, ultimately, it may not have meant anything at all.


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