The problem with a prodigious talent like Pablo Picasso is: how or where do you begin to make any sort of meaningful assessment of his work? He lived to a ripe old age; he was extremely prolific across multiple media; he befriended so many artists and writers; and he had numerous wives and mistresses, his personal life is a rich subject all on its own. Every few years, a new insight comes into focus, via major retrospectives or academic studies. The closest we have to an official biography extends to 4 volumes, and has so far only reached 1943 (Picasso died in 1973). Then there are the record-breaking art auctions…
So it must be with some trepidation that visitors approach the latest example of “making sense of” Picasso – the NGV’s current blockbuster exhibition, ominously titled “The Picasso Century”. The sheer volume of his output, the breadth of techniques and the range of styles can be overwhelming. This major exhibition (drawing mainly on the collections held in the Centre Pompidou and at the Picasso Museum, Paris) is arranged fairly conventionally, in chronological order, and reflecting the major periods of Picasso’s work.
There are glimpses of the post-impressionist Blue Period, the flirtation with Primitivism and Fauvism (which sparked a life-long rivalry with Matisse), and his dominance of Cubism (although both Braque and Gris gave him a run for his money). Plus the importance of people like Gertrude Stein who, initially through her brother, became an early admirer, friend and collector.
Then there is his association with the Surrealists, although I’ve never felt he fully embodied their movement. Sure, he was instrumental in furthering their aims, he counted many of its practitioners as close friends and associates, and he participated in many of their exhibitions, manifestos, happenings and publications. But Picasso did not really pursue the juxtaposition and sub-conscious of major Surrealists such as Dali, Magritte or Ernst. That’s not to say Picasso didn’t reveal his sense of humour or his liking for fantasy – but unlike some of his peers, he was always in control, nothing was left to chance, and even his re-telling of ancient myths and legends was self-serving and relatively orthodox.
First and foremost, Picasso was an excellent draftsman, and his lines and mark-making were always deliberate, distinctive and revealing – as seen in some of the archive footage of Picasso at work in his studio. (I think the dismissive argument that “any 3 year old could have drawn that” has long been debunked.)
Of course, when there are so many works to choose from, the curators are spoiled for choice, and narrowing down this selection must have been challenging – even though they stick gamely to their particular narrative(s), resulting in a balanced and consistent presentation. There are a couple of insights which I did find refreshing – Picasso’s association with Wilfredo Lam, and his dabbling in political themes (mainly stemming from his membership of the Communist Party in France). The one weakness in this exhibition is the extensive display of ceramic plates from Picasso’s later years. I’ve never been a fan of these pieces, as I don’t think they add much to his body of work. There is a sense that he would make these almost on demand, and had them at hand for when visitors and souvenir hunters tracked him down to his studio.
Nonetheless, this exhibition is highly recommended, and provides yet another excuse to admire the work of Picasso’s peak artistic years, from 1909 to 1949. Prior to that period, he was still finding his artistic voice (and creating his own myth); and after that, he found himself having to live up to (and even exaggerating) the myth he had built up for and around himself. Whatever else this exhibition may reveal about his life, the work is still what counts.
Next week: An AI Origin Story