CLASS OF PICASSO
Picasso is so hard to classify.
With many styles he would Picassify,
while serving meat upon his salad table,
to make each image from his palette palatable.
Caricatural his baroquerie
that makes of all the world a mockery,
depicting of the genitals a glut
that people who are smart do not call smut.
Inspired by an article by James Panero on an exhibition of late Picasso works of art at the Gagosian Gallery, “Picasso: Mosqateros?”:
The great relief comes from how Picasso chose to Picassify his own late work. Picasso’s bull-and-anus motif had grown tedious. His over-sexualization of the visual world had become a cartoon-like cliché, one urinal scrawl after another. The parade of battered wives in his portraits was also growing dreary, as Picasso himself came to recognize. Today’s blond beauty, everyone knew, would become tomorrow’s succubus, a vagina-dentata gorgon forever gnawing at Picasso’s pathetically vulnerable Andalusian arch masculinity. His daughter Paloma once remarked that “people were happy to be consumed by him. They thought it was a privilege.” Maybe so, but it grew increasingly unappetizing to watch Picasso consume his cannibalistic meals. He was that child-Titan forever licking his chops and showing his plate cleaned of limbs and noses. The final years took a different turn. As Picasso became more housebound in Notre-Dame-de-Vie, he introduced new and various forms of visual stimulation. He projected Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, featuring the Amsterdam musketeers (the “Mosqueteros” of the Gagosian title), on his studio wall. He was a movie buff. He watched television. Picasso turned his attention away from reality, his personal sexual reality, reality as filtered through cubism and expressionism, and focused on these new influences. Rather than devour the lives around him, he began to chew on the more palatable (palettable?) legacies of Rembrandt, Velásquez, Goya, El Greco, and van Gogh.
Kenneth Clark has described a major artist like Picasso, burning through his final stage, as someone who paints in an “unholy rage.” On the surface, Picasso appeared to do just that. His furious production at Gagosian seems simply mad. But the show ends up oddly apollonian. Picasso was attempting to scare off death while at the same time diligently preparing the decor for his own pharaonic tomb. Compared to his earlier work, there is less visceral rage in these final paintings and more consistent energy. The Gagosian paintings are mainly enormous playing-card portraits of kings, jacks, and jokers popping up in a roll call of stock art-historical characters. The show is an Old Master museum hall perceived through Picasso-colored glasses. “How could these unashamedly outrageous paintings,” Richardson asks, “with their farcical irony, their caricatural baroquerie, their glut of genitals, their science-fiction time warp and subversive black comedy, be reconciled to the accepted precepts of art history?” The answer is that these conservative paintings are pure art history, a survey course by the aging don offered up in titles like the Dutch-figured Tête d’homme du 17ème siècle de face (1967).
© 2009 Gershon Hepner 5/5/09