Art design

It’s hard to make Picasso surprising

I’m not sure we would expect to admire the works in the part of the exhibition dedicated to “political engagement”. With the obvious exception of GuernicaPicasso was never comfortable making art with an overtly political theme. Massacre in Korea, January 18, 1951 (1951) is one of the finest pictures he ever produced. He is oddly playful in a 1949 drawing of a hand holding a glass of wine, with the inscription: “Stalin, a ta sante” (Stalin, to your health). Four years later, on the death of Stalin, the portrait sketch made by Picasso provoked the indignation of party faithful.

Toby Pola and Chris Maxwell, GNV installers with Abduction of the Sabines by Pablo Picasso.Credit:Joe Armao

Picasso’s loyalties were questioned no less vigorously with regard to Cubism, the revolutionary style he and Braque had pioneered, when it was taken over by a group of so-called salon cubists and turned into an orthodoxy avant-garde. The exhibition contains works by second division cubists such as Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, André Lhote and Roger de la Fresnaye, who are competent but uninspired. When Picasso moved into a neoclassical phase, he was accused of betraying a movement he had never considered a movement.

Although he was more sympathetic to the Surrealists, Picasso kept a watchful distance, never joining the group or signing any of their manifestos. André Breton, the surrealist generalissimo, was reverent in his attitude and lost no opportunity to sing Picasso’s praises. Yet the artist’s most overtly surreal images were deeply personal, tied to his own desires and frustrations – his growing fixation on his young mistress, Marie-Thérèse, and the “demonic” anger of his wife, Olga.

Tony Ellwood, director of the NGV, and Didier Ottinger, deputy director of Pompidou.

Tony Ellwood, director of the NGV, and Didier Ottinger, deputy director of Pompidou.Credit:Getty Images

Olga, whom he had portrayed as a classic beauty in Portrait of Olga in an armchair

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(1918), became a homicidal monster in later works such as Woman with stylus (1931). At the same time, Picasso’s sexual obsession with Marie-Thérèse takes on a violent, “cannibalistic” dimension. The abstract lovers in Characters by the sea (1931), seem to devour each other.

The violence so close to the surface in surrealist painting reflects these impulses buried deep in the mind, sublimated in daily life. They go wild at Magritte The murderous sky (1927), with his collection of bloodied dead birds; and that of Masson gradiva (1938-39), which likens the female form to a piece of meat.

After a room filled with ceramic plates, testifying to the fruitfulness of Picasso’s late invention, we come to the last part of the show, populated by raw and flamboyant paintings of musketeers and other characters in 17th century costume. When first exhibited in 1973, these works were met with almost universal dismay. To the artist’s admirers, they looked like grotesque parodies of Rembrandt – frivolous, self-indulgent fantasies that ignored all the pressing political events that a great painter strength have addressed. For a growing number of detractors, Picasso had revealed his inadequacy with a contemporary art scene fiercely devoted to abstraction.

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We know what happened next. After being thrown into the dustbin of history, the ghost of Picasso will arise and inspire a new generation of figurative artists who borrow from the art of the past. This post-modern moment was brief, but it dispelled any doubt about Picasso’s current importance.

In retrospect, Ottinger believes that the Musketeers were quite right for a turbulent time that saw the exhaustion of modernist adventure. He quotes Henri Focillon, who believed that an artist was contemporary, not only with those of his own generation, but with a “spiritual group” that formed an important presence in his life. It’s an idea that would have appealed to Picasso, who constantly revisited the works of his favorite artists, from Velázquez and Rembrandt to Delacroix and Manet. He may have dominated the 20th century like no other painter, but Picasso saw himself as a talent that could not be limited by time.

The Picasso Century is at National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, until October 9.

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