Picasso: The Last Decades
Posted: 10 Mar 2003 | By: John McDonald
Pablo Picasso's popularity and position in art history have changed with the fickleness of fashion, but even his late works show he was bigger than all that, writes John McDonald.
In a science fiction story by Damon Knight, called A Thing of Beauty, a group of pygmy aliens in purple suits dump several crates of machinery in the lounge room of an unwilling earthling. Upon experimenting with these machines, he finds they enable him to draw pictures in the style of classical-period Picasso! In no time at all, he is a famous artist, even though - being the consummate philistine - he never considers these drawings to be much good. Not in the class of, say, Norman Rockwell.
Knight's story was first published in 1958, the year after Picasso was given a New York retrospective by the Museum of Modern Art, and Clouzot's film, Le Mystere Picasso was shown in cinemas around the world. The catalogue for Picasso: The Last Decades, includes a chronology that charts the artist's escalating fame at this time: covers of Time and Newsweek, massive attendances at his shows, skyrocketing prices at auction. It may be the ultimate tribute to his celebrity that he could be honoured in a pulp sci-fi story. By the late 1950s, Picasso was the most internationally-renowned of all living artists. Given the paths art has since taken - on one hand, into media-obsessed sensationalism, on the other, into a mass of obscure codes and discourses - it seems unlikely that there will ever be another artist who attains a comparable level of public recognition during his or her lifetime.
Picasso (1882-1973) is the very embodiment of modern art - in the past, the present, and for all time. We compare him, fitfully, with his friend Matisse, but there are dozens of biographies of Picasso and only a single first installment of Matisse's life. Every other week, it seems, there is another exhibition, another specialised study. Even those who profess a dislike for Picasso's work, can hardly deny his monumental significance.
It is almost surprising to be reminded of the antipathy that Picasso's name generated, in advanced art circles, for at least two decades prior to his death. The British critic, William Feaver, called him "a monstrous old irrelevance", but for many younger artists he was the bad father who had to be killed so that art could progress. For influential critics such as Clement Greenberg, his continuing vitality was simply inconceivable: "major" art was now being made in New York, not in the south of France. Even Picasso's friend and collector, Douglas Cooper, saw the late works as nothing more than "incoherent scrawls".
Although there were dissenters from received opinion, it was generally believed that following the Second World War, Picasso's art went into an irreversible decline. This mirrored the artist's own decline into old age, bringing with it the shadows of infirmity, impotence and senility. Picasso was portrayed as a victim of his own celebrity, doomed to keep repeating himself; railing against mortality with a kind of gross, lecherous anger. In the context of progressive art, he had been superceded - not only by abstraction, which he criticized at every opportunity, but by a host of new 'isms'.
It took the hyperbole of the 'return to painting' in the early 1980s, to spark a reassessment of Picasso's late works. By 1988, that reassessment was in full bloom, and critical consensus had turned massively in the painter's favour.
This is a lesson in the fickleness of critical opinion, and the blindness that descends on everyone when dazzled by the glare of fashion. The same processes apply today, and - since they have now been enshrined as institutional and academic doctrines - will no doubt shape the face of contemporary art for generations to come. Picasso, though, has had the last laugh. He has out-lasted his younger rivals, and left a body of work that seems incredibly powerful in comparison to the luke-warm, navel-gazing acts of rebellion that dominate the contemporary scene.
The AGNSW's late Picasso show was a long time in the making, and had to deal with the unforeseen obstacle of September 11, and the subsequent nervousness of museums in authorising important loans. The show was a labour of love for curator, Terence Maloon, but also a 'labour of loans', requiring a ridiculous number of polite letters. The result was an exhibition with a heavy emphasis on prints rather than paintings, but since this was the medium in which Picasso achieved his most startling results during the 1960s, there was a strong aesthetic justification. The late etchings made with printer, Piero Crommelynck, Suites 347 and 156, are so inventive that no-one could complain. Not only were these etchings technically superb, they bristle with self-deprecating wit: as in #64 in Suite 347, where an Old Master, of Spanish or Dutch appearance, paints a portrait of a nude model in front of an admiring audience. On the easel we see only a wild tangle of abstract marks, with one errant line launching straight towards the model's breasts which - like the rest of her body - seem disproportionately large in comparison to her innocent, little girl's face. One can see what's really on the painter's mind, and perhaps, what's really on the mind of all abstract painters.
The paintings were more of a mixed bag, representative of the old artist's themes and tendencies, but not comparable to the works included in the 1988 shows of at the Centre Pompidou and the Tate. Several pieces, such as the Tate's Nude woman with necklace (1968), still gave a clear sense of the savage vitality of which Picasso was capable. By contrast, his Reclining woman playing with cat (1964) from the Beyeler Collection, was remarkable for its subtle play with volumes, using the most limited of grey palettes. It was also hard to ignore a brilliant little study, Artist and model, reclining nude and man in profile (1965), from the collection of David Hockney. Here was Hockney's large debt to Picasso laid out for public perusal - a reminder of how much pure pleasure could be instilled in a canvas with a few twists of the brush and a squirt of bright colour.
It was the triumph of the show that it concluded with the late, great crayon Self-Portrait (1972) in which Picasso seems to stare death squarely in the face. No matter how many times one has seen this work, it always seems incredibly fresh. Presumably, this is because the questions it conjures up are perennial ones: How did a great artist confront death? How will any of us confront the moment? The paradox is that this testament to the end of Picasso's earthly days, is also an enduring icon of his artistic immortality.
Image: Femmes d'Alger, after Delacroix, 1954, by Pablo Picasso, oil on canvass, 65.1 x 72.7cm. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT.