There are two well-worn ways of telling the story of Picasso’s art. There’s the story of the succession of his new mistresses. There’s the story of the succession of his old masters. They’re not bad stories. In his multi-volume biography, John Richardson has been working with the mistress version. His thesis is that “when the woman changed, the art changed”. With each relationship, Picasso responded with a shift of style.
Meanwhile, many art historians have followed the old-master line. Picasso’s developing art is an ongoing struggle with a series of past artists. One after another, he picks up – picks on – swallows – a new source of inspiration: El Greco, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cézanne, Poussin, Ingres etc. It ends up in his late and explicit variations on works by Manet, Delacroix and Velázquez.
Both are sex stories. One tells of Picasso’s devastating sexual conquest of women. The other tells of how Picasso pits himself in sexual competition with the giants of the past. Either way, and together, they confirm the standard image of the artist – as the great goat-genius, whose torrential creativity is at one with his sexual potency and domination. And both stories have some of the truth. But surely we’ve heard enough of them.
Yet here comes one again. “Picasso: Challenging the Past” opens at the National Gallery on Wednesday, and it’s obviously the old-masters story re-repeated. “This exhibition examines the ways in which Picasso used the art of the past as source of energy and innovation. He was never a slavish imitator of the canon. Rather he took on that tradition in what has been called a ‘battle to the death’.” Yeah, tell me about it.
The show comes from Paris, where it was called “Picasso et les Maîtres”. There it was a much grander affair. At the Grand Palais, Picassos were shown alongside their supposed old-master sources, for direct comparison. The Paris show was derided for having borrowed some gratuitously prestigious classics – Goya’s Naked Maja, for example – that had no evident connection to any picture by Picasso. But it also had one clear advantage: it could show key works where the connection was undeniable. Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Delacroix’s Femmes d’Alger, the subject of two of Picasso’s late series of variations, were available from Parisian collections.
The London exhibition is a much more modest version. It has fewer Picassos, and only Picassos. No works by other artists are included for comparison. The National Gallery hasn’t, I suppose, the space, nor the resources, to do more. It relies on its captions and leaflets to direct you upstairs, to works in its permanent collection, to do your own cross-referencing. Actually, if you saw Picasso: Challenging the Past without its labels, I don’t know that you’d notice that it was supposed to be about Picasso’s sources (except in the last room, devoted to the explicit variations). Nevertheless, the agenda has its effects, visible and less visible, and they aren’t good.
Visible: you can’t ignore what the wall-captions and leaflets are telling you. The way they take the paintings on the walls and pin on each one a certificate of artistic origin. For all the talk of “a battle to the death”, this does its best to domesticate Picasso, makes him an obedient servant of art history. The layout encourages it. Works are shown not chronologically, but according to genres – self-portrait, portrait, nude, still life – the traditional academic categories, the better to make them fit the old boxes. The show does to Picasso what art history loves to do to every artist: tracks him down to his sources, puts him in his place.
And how depressing it was, during my preview visit, to see a TV crew loudly casing the joint. They were planning how they would smartly cut away from each Picasso picture to some other, vaguely related picture in the gallery, with the implication: got it! They were doing for their viewers what the exhibition wants us to do: to play these idle games of snap, and believe that, when we’ve made a match, then – a-ha! – we’ve made sense of something. But much of the time, we’re not even doing that. We’re wasting our time, trying to tease out a connection where there is none.
Is there any enlightening link, such as we’re asked to feel, between that nutty image of a Man with a Straw Hat and an Ice Cream Cone, painted in bobble-blobs, and a self-portrait of Van Gogh? Straw hat, right? Is there any link at all between that hard, stubby still life of Vase, Bowl and Lemon and a Zurbaran still life with its precious luminous vessels? Of course there isn’t.
The less visible effect of this agenda is that this is a pretty moderate and random Picasso exhibition. True, any collection of 60 Picassos is worth looking at, and there’s a handful of very strong works here. But this selection is weakened by its principle. It has to leave out vital things because they don’t warrant source-hunting. There’s only one example of hard-core Cubism. They could hardly have none – but, frankly, it has no reason to be here.
I wouldn’t entirely discourage going. But if it’s vitalising comparisons you want, then Picasso: Challenging the Past is a much duller show than Matisse Picasso was, at Tate Modern seven years ago. And any week of the year, Tate Modern has a pretty good showing of Picassos, and sometimes they’re hung beside other works in a telling way. I remember, during the recent Francis Bacon exhibition, going into Tate Modern and finding a room with a few Bacons that hadn’t been taken to the retrospective at Tate Britain. On the opposite wall there was a very late reclining nude by Picasso – 1971, two years before his death – and it utterly knocked those Bacons off their wall, made them look mean, cautious,withdrawing.
There’s no argument, I suppose, about the explosive presence of Picasso’s images. The question is whether that still feels like a current power, or like a great ancestral voice. Picasso: Challenging the Past tells us almost nothing about this question. The show I am trying to imagine is called Picasso: Challenging the Present.
A little while ago, the answer would have seemed obvious. Up to the middle of the 20th century, Picasso was the artist of the century, his relevance and influence almost universal. He was present. But by the end of the century, this had turned around, Marcel Duchamp, patron saint of conceptualism, had made a late run, and taken over in front position. Picasso was an old hot joke genius. Duchamp was the cool, calculating, upstaging joker. So, Picasso: Challenging the Present, today – wouldn’t that just be, at best, a blank stare of amazement?
Well, I wonder. Picasso may still surprise us. The first job of a revival show would be to estrange him. Try to remove any sense of the artistic personality. Break up the oeuvre into abrupt and disorderly fragments – no partners, sources, periods, genres. Leave out everything that speaks too fluently in Picasso-ese. (The late variations are a prime example: translations of Velázquez, Manet etc into Picasso-ese). Then stress the parts of Picasso’s work that remain the most indigestible – which also are the parts worst represented in this show. Focus on the impenetrable thickets of Cubism, which still, after 100 years, defy our comprehension. Focus on those images from the 1930s, with their extreme reshapings of the human form. And focus (oddly enough) on the sentimental story-telling of the early Blue and Rose periods.
That’s the kind of show we need. Something could come out of it.
Picasso: Challenging the Past, National Gallery, London WC1 (020-7747 2885; www.nationalgallery. org.uk), 25 February to 7 June
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