Sunday, June 12, 2011

Picasso: Masterpieces From the Musée National Picasso at the de Young

"Art should not be a trompe-l'oeil, but a trompe-l'espirit." Picasso in Robert Desnois, écrit sur les peintres, Paris, 1984

While the Musée National Picasso in Paris is closed for renovation, parts of the collection have been on a trip with many stops away from the usual triangle of London, New York and Washington DC.

Selected by Anne Baldassari, chairwoman of the Paris museum, the exhibition’s 150 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures show us a man with enormous natural gifts and a temperament that egged him on to try anything, sometimes the more outrageous, the better. What most of us keep in our closets is better off sent to the local thrift store. What Picasso kept in his closet was a lifetime of paintings, sculptures, drawings, etchings and prints. Of course, for a man who, in 1930, bought the Chateau de Boisgeloup, and who also owned several apartments in Paris, finding storage space was never a problem.

 La Celestine (Women with a cataract), Barcelona, 1904

The exhibit begins with the 1901 “Death of Casagemas” by the 20-year-old artist, and ends with “The Matador,” the 1970 self-portrait Picasso painted a few years before his death in 1973. The exhibit is roughly organized in chronological order although, given Picasso's multifaceted and paradoxical experiments, maintaining strict chronology is impossible.

Study of a Head for Nude with a Towel, Paris, Fall 1907, Gouache on paper.

The exhibit is particularly insightful in displaying the journey that Picasso took from realism to Cubism. The drawings in the Stein collection currently at SFMOMA combined with the drawings and paintings on view here illuminate his struggles. But what they don't mention (alas) is the influence of African art, Matisse, Braque, or the fruitful collaboration between the two of them that created Cubism. One glaring omission is the lack of any information on Cezanne. His 1907 show revolutionized the art world and galvanized Picasso on the trail that led to Cubism.

The collages such as "Glass, Ace of Clubs, Packet of Cigarettes (1919)" are still powerful in their invention and creative use of found materials. "Violin" (Paris, 1915) is as compelling as when it was created.
Violin, Paris, 1915, Construction, sheet-metal, cut, folded and painted wire

The erotic plays an important part in Picasso's Picassos'. The role that specific women played in his life and in his art is a cliche, but still holds a great deal of truth. A succession of women were central to his life and to his work: his early mistresses Fernande Olivier and Marcelle Humbert; his first wife, Olga Koklova; his mistresses Marie-Therèse Walter and Dora Maar; his companion Françoise Gilot; and his second wife, Jacqueline Roque.

'Art is not chaste,'' he once said. ''It should be kept away from ignorant innocents. Those ill prepared should be allowed no contact with art. Yes, art is dangerous. And if it is chaste, it is not art.''

He should know. He was a jealous lover and a devouring presence for most of the women in his life. In a review in the NY Times of an earlier show, the curator said, "Picasso saw everything carnally. It was at the core of his being.''

Nu Couché (reclining nude). April 4, 1932

The paintings of Marie-Thérèse from the artist’s own collection displayed here have an eroticism and sexuality that is often missing from his other works. His women show every emotion in the dictionary but subtle they are not. They weep, cry (lots of crying women), menace, plead, and, in the case of Marie Therese, lounge in a state of voluptuous sexual passivity.

Jacqueline with Crossed Hands,  June 1954

The show has his neo-Classical drawings of Minotaurs ravishing women, bulls attacking horses, Dora Maar as a woman matador and couples making love. The wall of small paintings of Dora Maar in various guises, styles and colors is a tour de force.  There's a room of sculpture and paintings representing his response to surrealism. The "Bull's Head"  (1942) is his answer to Duchamp's "ready mades." There are exquisite line drawings placed throughout the show and enough paintings of dismembered limbs to satisfy any fan of the horror film Friday the 13th and it's numerous successors.

Was there any art style or period or artist that he missed in his long life? It doesn't appear so. Like the matador who he celebrated in his work, he was always taunting the bull of art with the cape. Except that sometimes he was the bull, the Minotaur, leading the public through the labyrinth of his whims. As Françoise Gilot wrote so honestly in her memoir of life with Picasso, there was an element of sadism and cruelty in his nature. It shows in his art as well.

 “Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris” ignores the artist’s “biography and mythology,” says Fine Arts Museums director John E. Buchanan Jr. The works are hung white walls, with only small, inconspicuous signs identifying the works by name and date. The fond belief is that Picasso’s creations speak for themselves. Or course, there will be the ubiquitous audio tours which rather defeats the purpose of the lack of wall texts.

Unfortunately, by not placing the artist within his times, they perpetuate the myth of Picasso as the sole Promethean genius of 20th century art. The artist has been dead for 38 years. Maybe it's time to stop saying that the cheese stands alone.

Not everything in the show is a masterpiece. There are many famous works in the show, including “Celestina,” the Blue Period portrait of a hooded woman with one white eye from 1904 and the 1942 “Bull’s Head” made from a bicycle’s handlebars and leather seat. There are at least three Cubist paintings from the early teens that are stunning. But there is nothing as consequential as “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” at MoMA, the Tate Collection’s “Weeping Woman” or “Guernica” (at the Museo Reina Sofia).

Some years ago, Meyer Schapiro argued that Picasso discovered the unity of his experience through the very process of transformation; it was only through the tireless exercise of the artist’s hand and mind, through the ceaseless effort to be “sensitive, reactive, responsive,” that the artist would express his essential wholeness. What the show presents is the multifaceted and paradoxical presence of Picasso - an experience at once interesting, exhausting and sometimes infuriating. 

Be sure to take your vitamins before you go and wear comfortable shoes. The show is going be a blockbuster but it would be a shame to miss one moment of it. Love Picasso or hate him but it's impossible to ignore him.

WHAT: "Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris"
WHEN: Opens 9:30 a.m.
Saturday; 9:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; 9:30 a.m.-8:45 p.m. Wednesdays (through Aug. 31) and Fridays; through Oct. 9; closed Mondays except for July 4 and Sept. 6
WHERE: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, S.F.
TICKETS: $15-$25; free for members and children ages 5 and younger; advance tickets are available online
CONTACT: 415-750-3600;

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