Was Picasso Really That Great?
13.06.2006 by PETER SCHJELDAHL, www.newyorker.com/critics/art
Pablo Picasso is having a tough summer in Madrid. He can handle it, though with nothing like his usual insolent panache—you can feel him sweat. The occasion—“Picasso: Tradition and Avant-Garde,” a double exhibition at the glorious Prado and at the Reina Sofia, the desultory national modern-art museum—is purely celebratory in intent, marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the patriation of “Guernica,” after, at the artist’s behest, it had waited out in New York the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. The mood is implicitly nationalist, embracing a man who, in 1936, was named the director of the Prado, in absentia, by the republican government, but who never lived in his native land after 1904. (He liked to boast, “All these artists finally belonged to me.”) The shows just happen to put Picasso’s greatness to severe, vivid tests. By general agreement, he was the best artist of the twentieth century. How good was that? His sheer significance, as the god of modernity in painting, has always beggared ultimate judgment. Now the issue is being forced, at the Prado and the Reina Sofia, by direct comparisons of his work with that of the Old Masters who, from time to time, were important to him, either as models or as goads—notably Velazquez and Goya. The results probe Picasso’s artistic weaknesses—he had some—and give focus to doubts about the quality of the monumental egotist’s one major painted political statement, created in response to the German bombing of a Basque town, in 1937.
At the Prado, a compact retrospective of about forty borrowed Picassos, in chronological array—from precocious sketches, after Velazquez, that he made at the museum in 1897-98, while still a teen-ager, to a bravura canvas, “Musketeer and Love,” from 1969, four years before his death—are interspersed with germane works from the museum’s incredible permanent collection. “La Vie” (1903) and “Boy Leading a Horse” (1906) grapple with El Grecos, and “Self-Portrait with Palette” (1906) and two Cubist portraits face off against a Poussin and a Ribera. The determinedly ugly “The Serenade” (1942)—a contorted musician plays for a grotesque reclining nude—confronts one of its likely Renaissance inspirations (or targets), Titian’s gorgeous “Venus and the Organ Player.” The selection of Picassos is strong but might have been made stronger, with, say, “Portrait of Gertrude Stein” (1906) and “Harlequin” (1915), in place of lesser works. As it is, Velazquez’s “The Triumph of Bacchus” (a sly young god attended by tipsy guys you would recognize in the first low-end bar down your street) runs rings around Picasso’s classicizing portrait of his son Paulo as a Harlequin (1924) and even the great “Three Musicians” (1921), whose deftly interlocking planes suddenly seem so much empty trickery. Seen through an archway into the museum’s main hall, “Las Meninas” craves congress with “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), but, instead, the greatest of paintings must abide Picasso’s Velazquez pastiches of 1957—bagatalles in which he seems less an arch parodist than an abject buffoon. Other Old Masters on hand include Rubens (his copy of Titian’s “Rape of Europa,” which amounts to a collaboration that is beautiful beyond measure), Veronese, Zurbaran, and Goya (“The Naked Maja”).
The Reina Sofia concentrates on “Guernica,” which has resided immovably at the museum since 1992, supplementing it with related drawings, and with two of its three most formidable rivals (David’s “Death of Marat” is the missing third) as paintings of political violence—Goya’s “The Third of May 1808 in Madrid: The Executions on Principe Pio” (1814), from the Prado, and Manet’s “The Execution of Emperor Maximilian” (1868-69), the complete version, from Mannheim.
Mano a mano, Picasso stands up brilliantly to Ribera, Zurbaran, and Poussin, suggesting that the attention to stark fact in the first two, and the rational method of the third, were historic steps in Picasso’s direction. The proximity of blue- and pink-period pictures to El Greco’s grandiose “Trinity” confirms a familial affinity that is often remarked on. Picasso was excited by El Greco’s vertiginous formal inventions, and he dismissed the earlier painter’s religiosity as one would a revered brother’s harmless crotchets. (But questions of belief haunt the show. Picasso had faith only in himself, which makes him both heroically modern and, in his present company, a figure of relatively wizened, sour spirit.) Titian, Rubens, and even Veronese are again another matter, exposing the poverty of Picasso’s color. His forte was linear and analytical—hard and dry. He wielded color resourcefully and keenly, to intensify contrasts, but the sensuous eloquence of real colorists, for whom meaning is inseparable from decorative effect, was outside his ken. That’s why, rant as he did against the effeminate inferiority of decoration, Picasso could never completely shake off Matisse. And that’s why comparing Picasso with Velazquez reinforces the latter’s preeminence. Velazquez has no discernible limits in any capacity of his art. He is Picasso plus Matisse—adept at blacks and grays as plangent as Matisse’s reds and blues.
Picasso’s smartest decision in “Guernica,” a consummate feat of pictorial intelligence, was to limit its palette to black-and-white. He thereby forged his chief handicap into a thematic weapon, inferring that war is no time for indulgence and, by evoking the look of a newspaper, factored in the modern experience of comprehending catastrophe (and of inflicting it) at a distance. Proto-Pop, the trope anticipates the use of grainy tabloid photos in Andy Warhol’s “Disaster” series. Other aspects of the work are less persuasive. There is the question of temperament. Do we believe an identification with victims of cruelty from a man who, in small ways, enjoyed being cruel? His many pictures, from the same time, of Dora Maar weeping are poignant enough. But who made her cry? (“Women are machines for suffering,” he once remarked.) Most gravely, in terms of rhetoric, the representations of carnage—a screaming woman, a limp baby, a severed arm clutching a sword—are ingenious but remote, instantly generic emblems. “Guernica” is more impressive as graphic design—a gigantic poster, complex but firmly knitted and legible at a glance—than as symbolic expression. It is a cartoon about atrocity in the abstract. The one emotion that burns through is the artist’s controlled anger. Picasso couldn’t help making this picture, like all his others, be about himself.
There is, however, no gainsaying the unquenchable authority of “Guernica” as an icon, especially in Spain. Its arrival there, in 1981, heralded a national liberalization, whose fragility was made apparent by the painting’s initial display, in a building near the Prado, flanked by vigilant soldiers of the Guardia Civil, inside a cage of bulletproof glass. (“Guernica” still sparks conflict: the first questioner at a press conference for this show asked when the painting would be coming to the Basque region, to which the Reina Sofia director answered, in essence, “Never.”) At the Reina Sofia, you can now get quite close to the bare surface of the vast canvas (more than twenty-five feet long by more than eleven high) before a rope intervenes and, should you lean forward over it, as I did, a discreet alarm sounds. But it’s impossible not to feel that an invisible envelope of practically religious passion, a collective emanation of generations of viewers, shields the mural. Simply, no other work of a bloody century so successfully—that is, to a lesser degree of failure—apostrophizes the character of total war. If the emotionally devastating Goya and even the eerily detached Manet are far superior in conjuring lived horror, with flowing blood and choking gun smoke, it’s because they belonged to times when organized violence could still be convincingly registered in specific detail, at human scale, and painting had not yet lost its grip on external reality to photography and on historical fiction to the movies. How good was Picasso? The best anyone could be then, and unlikely to be equalled anytime soon.