Monthly Archives: December 2011

Picasso At The AGNSW

Picasso’s Picasso

As best as I can tell, the current show touring Australia from Paris is based on the collection Pablo Picasso owned of his own work at the time of his death. In other words, these are the works he liked so much, with which he would not part. As such, it offers an entirely different sort of entry point to most collections of Picasso works that are extant. I’ve seen the Guggenheim collection and the Norton Simon Museum collection and over the years there have been some others that have come through town so even if I can’t claim to understand Picasso’s work, I have a good level of prior experience of seeing his work.

In one sense, it’s a Picasso exhibition that’s mostly curated by Picasso himself.

What’s Good About It

The outstanding thing about this collection is that it covers a great deal of his career, so there’s almost something from just about every period of his career. Each room is contextualised around a part of Picasso’s life, and so you get a better feel for how he developed his style and vision through his life. In that sense, this is a fine collection that allows you into the mindset of the creator, much more than other collections of Picasso, although I must admit I have not seen the big collection in Spain.

There is a wide range of works, covering small sketches and paintings through to larger canvases and sculptures. I’d seen the book of the exhibition about a month ago when I got drawn into an argument about the greatness of Picasso, but when I saw the whole exhibition it made more sense than the book.

What’s Bad About It

Some of the rooms are dark. You don’t really get a good sense of colours in some instances and in with some sketches, you’re squinting to get a sense of contrast. You get a little booklet where they explain the rooms and the period of Picasso’s life, but it still feels somewhat under-explained. I don’t know if the onus is on the curator for something like this, but it did seem sparse in parts.

What’s Interesting About It

When you see this series of works, some of his favorite objects and motifs begin to leap out at you. For instance, he really liked guitars, and other fretted instruments like mandolins and lutes. There are two sculptures that ostensibly are representations of guitars and it is actually quite interesting how he deconstructs the guitar into abstract art. You get the feeling that Picasso spent a lifetime tangling with the guitar – possibly because he was a Spaniard to the end – and he kept trying to capture something about the guitar that drew him in.

He also liked animals, for they make frequent appearances in his works. Bulls and Minotaurs are famous; as is the dove of peace he designed for the United Nations; but in this exhibit we’re introduced to goats and goat’s heads and goat’s skulls quite a bit. Clearly he liked women a lot, but it’s surprising just how much he liked abstracting the lines of animals.

As for the women, this is perhaps the only Picasso exhibition that offers insight into who these women were to Picasso. He kept paintings of these women long after they were out his life. He’d managed to abstract them as well as capture them and perhaps he didn’t need them any more. There’s clearly something predatory and unrelenting about Picasso’s pursuit of these women and on to the canvas. And no matter how much he abstracted their faces, he really liked lining up the pair of nipples and breasts properly. he wasn’t about to start abstracting “tits and arse”.

“The Greatness of Picasso” Arguments

We’ve all been there. Confronted with the mass of Picasso’s work, somebody always pipes up and says they don’t think Picasso is that great. You can even hear that person as you walk through the exhibit, and they bloody well mean it because they say in a whisper that is inevitably heard by everybody in the room. We get int these arguments any time somebody decides the abstracted lines are simply crap, and not good descriptive art. You hear the argument that if Picasso could draw and paint as well as he could, then why didn’t he go off the rails so much? And why do critics think this is so great.

My humble opinion is simply this: Picasso got bored easily. And to the extent that he got bored, he decided he was only going to paint or sculpt or draw what interested him and kept his interest. There is one particular back-to-the-classicism painting of Olga, with the background unfinished. Clearly he was interested in Olga, and painting her with sufficient fidelity, but when it came to filling in the background, he couldn’t bring himself to do it, but kept the unfinished canvas. It’s obvious – without ascribing motive, hopefully – that he simply chose not to fill in the background, and moved right along to the next thing. While the reason is unknown, my best guess is that he got bored.

All these developments he made such as cubism appear to be a desire to abstract shadow from form, form from subject, lines from outlines and image from perspective. The reason Picasso painted these funny mixed up faces was because he wanted to paint lines that he liked from the face at certain angles, but for them to all be there at once. To me, this is self-evident; but I have no hope of convincing you of this insight if you disagreed.

In as much as there is so much of Picasso’s work in this world, I imagine there is a powerful legion of critics who still question whether Picasso was a genius or not. The thing about going through the gallery looking at this exhibition is that in the very least, Picasso was an inventive artist, forever trying a new way to express something. He did not fear failure the way a perfectionist does; and to that extent he was a lot more free than most people would imagine.

I for one do not think Picasso’s works is for everybody. It’s not going to convince everybody, unlike say, the voice of Pavarotti or Shakespeare’s plays. It’s probably sacrilege to say this but I don’t think everything he did has a wide appeal. Yet, if you look at a lot his works in one spot and spend the time to carefully observe the lines and shapes he painted and sculpted, you begin to get a sense for what defines his style, as well as why that might be so.  I can’t – and won’t – claim to understand all of his work but I will venture that based on this exhibition, there’s something of Picasso that I do grok.

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