'Picasso: challenging the past'
National Gallery, London, February-June 2009
This exhibition makes an interesting contrast with ‘Rodchenko and Popova’ at Tate Modern. The latter showcases two artists in post-revolutionary Russia who sought to play their part in building a new world by wiping the artistic slate clean and starting again. Picasso, by contrast, brought up in Barcelona and painting in Paris, sees himself working within the long tradition of western art, going back to the Renaissance and beyond.
The exhibition highlights various examples of how Picasso addressed a traditional subject-matter in the language of modernism, as well as, later on, attempting to rework specific examples of some of the old masters.
It is especially in the early work that we see Picasso’s most fruitful engagement with tradition. Critics disagree over what Cubism was ‘about’, but it was certainly, among other things, a continuation of the work of Cezanne, who himself was wanting to build on Impressionism. Cezanne sought to integrate the immediacy of experience of Monet with the intellectual constructiveness of Poussin. In continuing Cezanne’s approach, Cubism can be seen, at least from one angle, as an early form of post-modernism: it discards the naïve realism of Impressionism (‘reality is what I see’) in favour of a more complex, Kantian idea of knowledge, that we do not know reality directly, but the mind imposes its own order upon the perceptions that are received by the senses.
Thus we see Picasso seeking to continue and update the western artistic canon by taking traditional subjects, such as nudes and still-lifes, and addressing them, not as they have traditionally been seen, but as they are now understood by the mind. His figures, such as the beautiful and poignant Seated nude of 1909, are constructed out of multiple sense perceptions. But at the same time a gulf of unknowability is established between the viewer and the original objective reality of the subject.
I tried to approach this exhibition with an open mind, but in fact it only confirmed my view that – with the notable exception of Guernica – Picasso’s work after the 1920s was disappointingly vapid, broadly swept canvases that speak of little more than his own moods and insecurities.
The main room of the exhibition focuses on works from his later years, especially between 1954 and 1962, in which he attempted to rework in his own language some of the masterpieces of the past. It was a major effort on his part: 15 paintings based on Delacroix’s Women of Algiers, 27 on Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe, and more than 50 relating to Velazquez’s Las Meninas. But were his paintings ‘inspired’ by the masters, or, as the catalogue says, ‘provoked’ by them? Was he now, an artist in his 70s, trying to learn from the masters or trying to outdo them? It is not apparent, looking at the works, what is added to these images by his reworking of them. What came across to me from them is the sense of fear and insecurity about his powers as an artist – the same fear that we also find in his repetitive paintings of predatory women, who threaten to deprive him of his other form of creativity.
[Review first published in Third Way magazine.]