review of Roland Penrose's Picasso by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - January 28, 2014
I picked this up at a friend's yard sale, not that that's likely to matter to you, dear reader, much, for probably less than a dollar. I mention that b/c it's astounding how many things a person can acquire in this surplus society w/o having much money. I like Picasso's paintings, mostly the Cubist stuff. He had a period when he was associated w/ Surrealism too - that never really made that much sense to me: I kindof figured Breton adopted him in the same way that, say, Maciunas adopted Ligetti into Fluxus - possibly to attract more fame.
I've been reading William Gaddis's exceptional novel, The Recognitions & there's a part where Wyatt, a main character & an artist, is deeply impressed by a Picasso at a museum: "When I saw it all of a sudden everything was freed into one recognition, really freed into reality that we never see, you never see it." (p 92 of the Dalkey Archive edition) I've been in the mood to look at paintings so that was a good impetus to look at this particular bk - even tho I have other art bks that're more important for me to read.
Another thing that prompted my interest is that it's credited to Roland Penrose. I've got a great bk edited by Herbert read called, simply, Surrealism & that's got B&W repros of at least 3 of Penrose's pieces: "Beauty Prize" (1932), "The Jockey" (1936), & "Captain Cook's Last Voyage" (1936). I like them ok & I've thought of Penrose ever since as one of the few British Surrealists. "Penrose was on the organizing committee of the International Exhibition of Surrealism held in London in 1936, which included several Picasso paintings." (p 5)
Alas, crediting this to Penrose is a bit misleading. The publishers took a pre-existing Penrose text & used it. The rest of the bk, including the notes that accompany the painting repros, is written by David Lomas, who gets 2nd billing - presumably b/c he's not an art star. I wdn't credit either of them w/ being particularly exceptional writers.
"Penrose met Picasso in 1928. When he came to write a biography, Picasso. the Life and Work, Penrose was able to draw upon their lengthy friendship for many of his valuable insights. A humorous instance of this is his revelation that Picasso grafted the snout of his beloved mistress Dora Marr in portraits of her — something one could not discover without the chance to observe both at first hand!" - p 5
This particular Picasso bk is from 1971. I reckon the challenge of putting out yet another bk by a famous artist is in trying to distinguish it somehow - hence the Penrose attribution. By far my favorite Picasso painting, "Guernica", is only reproed small & in B&W - maybe that's another distinction of the bk, maybe the publisher thought "Guernica" had already gotten enuf exposure.
"The turning-point in Picasso's early career came when he was 25. The struggle in which the young artist found himself involved is forcibly illustrated in the great picture, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," [there's a plate of it & it's on the cover] "painted in Paris in the spring of 1907. It came as a shock to his friends that he should abandon a style that they had grown to love and produce a form of art that they could no longer understand. No one, not even Matisse, Braque and Derain, nor his devoted patrons, nor even his close friend and admirer Guillaume Apollinaire could stomach this work, which at first sight seemed to them outrageous. It took many months to digest this insult to their sensibility, but gradually they came not only to accept it but to find that it was exerting a profound influence on them." - p 7
Ha ha! I like this story. The painting probably seemed very grotesque at the time & weirdly 'uneven' stylistically. According to Lomas, it wasn't even exhibited until 9 yrs later in 1916. What if it had NEVER been exhibited? I think of the fall of 1978, I had just turned 25, I decided to make the transition from artist to Mad Scientist. I enacted this by having a gathering at my apartment where I gave away 19 or so art objects that I'd made. I gave a drawing to my mom on a separate occasion. One of the recipients immediately ripped up one of the drawings in honor of my transition. That wasn't really what I had in mind. I repossessed one of the sculptures eventually, I'm glad I did. I don't know whether a single friend kept any of the work. I asked one of them that I'm still in touch w/ recently if he still had the 'self-portrait' sculpture I gave him. It was a piece of plexiglass about 2 ft wide by maybe 5 ft long that had a hole cut in it & other modifications. It was meant to be leaned w/ one end on baseboard & the other on the floor. It was one of my favorite pieces. He didn't know what happened to it. My mom found the drawing I'd given her when she was moving house 29 yrs later. She asked if I wanted it, I did. It was a drawing I'd done of an island in a cemetery stream that I drew a vacuum cleaner on. When it came time to get it she'd lost it, probably thrown it away.
It was good to be reminded of Picassos I'd forgotten about such as the "Manager from New York" costume (1917) he designed for "Parade", the ballet that Satie did the music for. When I got to his "Weeping Woman" (1937) painting I was surprised to be strongly reminded of some of Gary Panter's work, maybe something like the cover to Frank Zappa's "Studio Tan" record (altho maybe that's pushing the comparison too much). Panter seems to have explored a similar over-the-top turf & seems to have been influenced a little by 'primitive' arts like Picasso was. I think particularly of Panter's "Barely Newport" series of acrylic on paper paintings that remind me of African masks. I actually enjoy Panter's work more than Picasso's for what it's worth. At any rate, they both impress me as having an extremely forceful RAWness (it's no wonder that Panter was a prime contributor to the great RAW comics).
"If anything, the effect is intensified in Weeping Woman. the refined palette of the preceding plates reaches a jarring expressionist pitch. Attention falls first on the open crying mouth and on the fingers, framed by the edges of a handkerchief. This section, like a picture within the picture, is filled with zigzag rhythms. These shock waves literally explode the equanimity of an elegant Parisian woman, who gives vent to an ocean of tears; indeed her eyes are like tiny boats tossed on a turbulent sea." - p 108
I really like Lomas's "her eyes are like tiny boats tossed on a turbulent sea": it's a perfect description, I can't look at this painting & find it restful, it's powerfully unsettling.
"In the autumn of 1957 Picasso embarked on a period of exceptional concentration, shutting himself off from friends for more than two months." Big deal. "During this time he painted a series of variations on Las Meninas of Valazquez, a painting that had fascinated Picasso when he first visited Madrid with his father at the age of fourteen. Working rapidly on a greta number of canvasses of all sizes he vigorously transformed Valazquez's handling of this strangely ambiguous version of the old theme, the artist and his model. He respect the principal elements of this dramatic composition, the lighting, the spacing of the figures, their gestures, and even the texture of their dresses, but he became ruthless in the transformations he brought about". - p 22
& what an amazing painting of Picasso's it is! To the right there's a crudely outlined figure that's starkly in contrast to the Cubist clutter of the left. What thing that I kept thinking of while I was looking thru this is the tired critical cliché of Cubism looking at objects from all angles. Ok, there are faces seen in profile & fully frontally. I like that. But can't we just appreciate Picasso's apparent lust for distorting things?! I'll bet he had fun doing that - adding the dog's snout to his mistress's face? That must've been fun - & it's interesting to look at.
"It is a misconception that cubism offers a more objective or complete view of the world by surveying objects from several different angles. Picasso cautioned that the realism of cubist painting is elusive and impalpable, like a perfume. Cubism in fact owes much to the persistence of symbolist attitudes into the first decade of the century. Instead of treating art as a mirror of nature, symbolism stressed the subjective vision of the artist" - p 68
I just think of Picasso as using the visual equivalent of distortion pedals.
I'd never heard of Picasso's friend Casegmas who committed suicide in 1901. Picasso did various works in response to that, including "La Vie", a blue period painting, from 1903. AND I didn't know that Picasso joined the Communist Party after the liberation of Paris, where he lived during the nazi occupation. It's claimed that he was in the French Resistance. Another blue period painting is "Child Holding a Dove" (1901): I've got a print of this one, didn't even know that was the title - &, in fact, uh, the painting shown is NOT the painting described - OOPSIE! Plate 4 has been cut out of my copy. SO, uh, forget that.
Lomas describes "The Old Guitarist": "A beggar playing a guitar tune and hoping thereby to attract the charity of passersby" (p 44) How about this? A guy who writes copy for coffee-table bks tries to attract alms from passersby as he mumbles about Picasso. Does that seem worng somehow?! Why shd this guitarist not just get pd? Why does he have to beg?! Actually, I'm not convinced he's begging anyway - there's no cup or hat in the painting & the scene doesn't even seem that urban.
I love these Cubist paintings: "Nude" (1910):
"Curves and painted highlights are used around the hip and shoulder regions. These points of articulation attract close attention because Picasso has attempted to render the figure in motion. The use of cubist devices to suggest movement was exploited by the Italian futurists, and notably by Marcel Duchamp in his famous Nude Descending a Staircase.
"Attempts have been made to relate the peculiar space and transparency of objects in cubist pictures to such contemporary developments as the invention of X-Rays." - p 70
I like it, I don't recall ever thinking of the X-Ray angle. "Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler": do painters still do portraits of their art dealers? "Still Life with Cards, Glasses and a Bottle of Rum: "Vive la France'": another beaut, rich deep colors, nice variety.
"Still Life on a Table - with a view of the rue de Penthièvre in Paris - contains many of the same elements, only they have been shuffled like pieces of a jigsaw waiting to be solved by the viewer. The round gueridon table appears in many late still lifes by Braque. Upon it is place a compotier (fruit bowl) and a guitar as well as a row of house façades from the background! These objects are framed as if to create a second picture within the picture, adding another twist to the pictorial puzzle." - p 82
Yep, love it, like so many of the ones I like it's like a collage w/o actually being a collage - that makes it more interesting to me. & then there's the "Three Musicians" - a variation on this one adorns the cover of a turnabout VOX record of Schoenberg's "Verklärte Nacht", Op. 4, & "Chamber Symphony", Op. 9 - thusly instantiating deeply into me.
"Seated Bather" & "Figures by the Sea (The Kiss)" are both pretty wacky. Lomas says about the latter: "An amorous embrace turns into a lethal duel between two combatants who seek to devour each other. Their dumb animal heads have no eyes with which to see (love is blind!)." (p 98) Hhmm.. Each of the 2 figures has 2 circles on their faces that are different from what appear to be 2 nostrils & wch look more like eyes than ears to me. Dunno, but I love the way Picasso seems so uninhibited.
"The Sculptor"'s another stunner. The composition's so damned lively. Lomas says that its "stippled dots [..] refer to neo-impressionist painting". (p 100) He might be right, to me it just looks like stippling. I love the way he has one small area of faux marble in the lower right that gives such a different weight in contrast to the other writhings.
"Cat Devouring a Bird" (1939) borders on a dime store painting except that there's nothing cute about it, it's ferocious. Lomas says it "was painted at an ominous juncture in European history: in January 1939 Barcelona surrendered to Franco's forces and in September the German war machine rolled into Poland.
"A fearsome cat disembowels its pathetic victim with teeth an claws (excoriations on the surface of the canvas mime this aggression.) All its terrifying lust for violence is concentrated in the expression of its head which is, as Roland Penrose notes, 'at the same time ferociously animal and disquietingly human.'" - p 110
I quite agree, I have no problem accepting this as allegory & find its emotional directness very affective.
"Woman in a Fish Hat" (1942) shows, yes, a woman wearing a fish w/ a fork & a lemon slice on her head. Captain Beefheart wears a fish mask on the cover of his "Trout Mask Replica" record (surprise, surprise) & I'm sure I've seen Monty Cantsin sporting a fish hat too. You saw it in a Picasso 1st, Ladies & Gentlemen.
&, WHEW!, another amazing painting: "Women on the Banks of the Seine, After Courbet": Lomas has a nice analysis:
"In reworking it he embellishes the Courbet with a rich decorative style first used in a remake of El Greco's Portrait of a Painter. The colour scheme also points to El Greco (his painting was a major influence on Les Demoiselles d'Avignon). If so, two stranger bedfellows could not be imagined:a Spanish court painter of the seventeenth century who painted in a highly stylized manner, and a nineteenth-century radical socialist whose name is synonymous with realism. For Picasso it was possible to encompass both these artistic alternatives. In his lifestyle, too, he lived out this curious alliance: as a member of the Communist Party and a multi-millionaire living in a castle." - p 116
The Phaidon Colour Library is a remarkably cheap set of full colour guides to the great artists and to some of the schools of art that make up the canon.
This guide to Picasso (48 pages) is, unfortunately, somewhat hagiographic because the extensive Introduction by his friend, the surrealist painter Roland Penrose, was written in 1971. At this time, Picasso's post-war work was not being widely appreciated by critics (with justification). Simultaneously, the artist was the subject of a highly developed cultural myth of greatness that owed more to the politics of the Cold War than to any reasoned assesment of the work he was undertaking at the time.
Picasso, by this time. was in the awkward position (he died two years later in 1973) of being lionized by the liberal Left and disregarded by the artistic community except as a historical figure of note. As a result, this guide is good for an account of what Penrose thought of his friend but, to get a more nuanced and reasoned view, you will have to go elsewhere.
The truth is that Picasso was a genius but one whose talent lie in his stylistic adaptability and experimentalism based around a surprisingly few themes fully derived from the mainstream historical tradition of Western art. There is a coldness, facility and even occasional inauthenticity in his work at times as if the artist was a very decent man but not a great man even if he was a great artist.
Perhaps he was most true to himself as an artist, without external worries about the wider world or women, during the remarkable Cubist phase when, in tandem with Braque, he worked a fairly cold-hearted theory through every possible development, from beginning to natural end. He transformed the way art is seen in terms of form even if the hermetic nature of the experiment meant that it was intellectually exhausted by the early 1920s.
The early works look sweet. It is not his fault if they have been degraded by over-use by UNESCO for Christmas cards - the international secular liberal community having adopted him as their patron saint from the 1950s. The last works (when he was over 60 from the late 1940s through to the early 1970s) unfortunately look like repetitive simplistic daubs. I have not yet seen a convincing reason why they should be seen as more than relatively minor works despite every attempt to proselytise for them from Picasso-philes.
So, once the experiment of Cubism is taken for read, why is he great? Because at key junctures, he found a certain authenticity that was not pure intellectualism nor scrabbling around to find a voice in a market.
The first phase of true greatness starts with the discovery of primitivism in sculpture. The remarkably simple and erotic 'Nude Against a Red Background' (1904), 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon' (1907), 'Three Women' (1907/1908) and 'The Dryad' (1908) are works that open the space for Cubism but allow sculptural representation on canvas that expresses raw, primal emotion. The irony that his art swings from this to a rigid intellectualism of observation in the Cubist phase is interesting (approx. 1909-1920) but it does not detract from Picasso being the true bridge between Cezanne and abstraction and a master of form.
The second phase comes ultimately from his adoption by the surrealists. The Three Dancers of 1925 is a welcome return to primitivism and the early 1930s see brutalist deconstructions of a classicism that was increasingly being associated with conservative authoritarianism and fascism, alongside primally erotic paintings of his mistress ('Nude Woman in an Armchair' and 'Woman Asleep in an Armchair' (1932). This combination of revolt against convention and interest in expressing primal feeling - much as in the 1904-1908 works - came together in some dramatic works of the late 1930s that have become iconic and the basis of his later position as secular saint.
The politics of this second phase are important. Surrealism gets left behind and we see a series of major works, of which Guernica is the most culturally significant but which also include 'Weeping Woman' and 'Cat Devouring A Bird', in which Picasso responded to the violent collapse of civilisation in the 1930s with a raw power that was to buy him his post-war reputation on the internationalist Left.
Perhaps war exhausted him. He did not scuttle to America. He joined the Communist Party after the war and perhaps it was just easier to leave changing the world to the comrades. He could claim to have done his bit. Similarly, by 1944, he was well over 60 with, perhaps, a more moderated libido.
Still, his achievement from his early 20s to his late 50s is remarkable. He deserves his great status. If only his admirers would leave him alone, it might be better appreciated. Buy the book for the plates - the series is very cheap to own and even an unsatisfactory introduction can be overlooked for this reason.
Un paso emocional por las facetas de Picasso, desde la época azul, época rosa y finalmente El Cubismo cómo personaje estrella de este movimiento. Picasso todo un visionario y hombre de negocios, trabajaba arduamente en espera que la inspiración lo visite y generar su magia.