Review of “Picasso Challenging The Past” at the National Gallery till 7th June by Phillip Worth

What more can be said or written about Pablo Picasso, easily the dominant figure of 20th century art? Apart from specialist galleries devoted to his art in, for example, Paris and Barcelona, a comprehensive retrospective of his huge output would be unthinkable unless, as a phantasy, you contemplated using all the space of the main London Galleries at the same time – and probably the Parisian as well. And so, historically, Picasso exhibitions have tended to focus on particular aspects of his work, e.g. the nude, Cubism, Sur-realism, figuration, ceramics, still life, or phases of his artistic development, such as the “Blue” or “Rose” periods, war-time, post-war and so on. Thus the exhibition currently showing at the National Gallery until June 7th this year turns the spotlight on the artist’s debt to the great masters of the past, especially in the European tradition. In this context it would be doing him a grave injustice to suggest that Picasso was a mere copyist (although he assiduously worked along these lines when, as a young man, he studied the techniques of those masters at the Prado in Madrid, at his adopted home town of Barcelona, and at the Louvre in Paris. What he was attempting to do was to tease out of past masterpieces their essential meaning, their eternal verities, and to express these in the different manners he developed from time to time. The “challenge” was not confrontational, rather it was an invitation to his subjects to prove themselves by, e.g., representation in the Cubist manner. In fact his choice of themes remained very much in the classical European tradition and included self portraits, figures – especially the female nude, portraits, still lifes, historical events etc. It used to be commonly suggested that Picasso was one of the earliest painters of pure abstracts. Nothing could be further from the truth and he himself was always at pains to refute the idea. His world was the perceived, the familiar; his purpose was to reveal the inner meaning, the essence of the familiar, as though objects and figures had a reality in some parallel universe. It also meant that, apart from his own highly idiosyncratic style, he could and frequently did, part from any exact configuration of whatever subject had inspired him. His “variations” reflected his purpose which was to make the original – his starting point – relevant to the present day and its social climate. Frequently, indeed, his configuration would be materially different from the original so that, e.g., a seated pose might transmute into a standing pose.

Six illustrated examples, based on the National Gallery Exhibition, follow – space does not allow for more. They follow, approximately, the chronology of three different phases of the artist’s career:

Pierre Auguste Renoir "Seated Bather in a landscape, Called Euridice"

An early member of the Impressionist Fraternity, like them Renoir was pre-occupied with the play of light on perceived objects. He took part in many Impressionist exhibitions, but his focus shifted from landscape to the human figure. A many-sided artist, he became a fashionable portraitist, but his real love was to portray the nude female figure, where he displayed an incomparable ability to achieve the glowing and delicate flesh tones of young womanhood. However, his graphic gifts also served him well in his vital portrayal of female anatomy, this in turn being a powerful influence on Picasso, his ardent admirer.

Picasso:"Seated Nude"

Although not immediately influenced by the Renoir painting the subject matter is sufficiently alike to make Picasso’s work a fascinating matter for comparison. A product of the phase of “Analytical Cubism” the figure is a mass of interconnecting planes, their solidity expressed by the way they interlock not only within the subject but with the space it occupies. The temptation for the first-time viewer of this kind of painting may be to turn away in confusion – a mistake, as this and other examples of the genre repay extended scrutiny. In this case the figure of a seated woman clearly emerges and she is not merely recognizable as such, but the demure turn of her head and the graceful positioning of her arms and hands also emerge. This, and other works of his earlier Cubist period (e.g. portraits) show Picasso’s extraordinary ability to capture and express the essence of his subject matter. In this phase the influence of Cezanne should be noted – a main concern with solidity and mass rather than with light and colour.

Paul Cezanne:"Still Life With Apples And Oranges"

Picking up on the last point we see here the master of still life at the peak of his powers. Without going in for the conventional Trompe L’Oeil effects of perspective Cezanne’s painterly brush gives inanimate objects a kind of living vitality. This is not merely the accuracy we expect from photography; it is a kind of pantheism, in which apples, oranges, jugs and fabric seem truly alive, possessed of a spirit of their own.

Picasso:"Fruit, Dish, Bottle and Violin"

Here one could say that Picasso was challenging Cezanne, not in a critical or hostile sense, but more by way of an assertion that, great as was the work of the French master, his was not the only way in which still life could be presented. By the time he produced this work Picasso was entering on his second Cubist phase – that of “Synthetic Cubism” – in which the flat picture plane was no longer regarded as something to be avoided, but rather as an asset. This meant a much greater focus on composition and, incidentally, on colour. At this stage, also, Picasso was making use of collage, i.e. using cut-out pieces of fabric and newspaper as part of his image.

Diego Velasquez;"Las Meninas"

This large canvas, painted towards the end of he artist’s life, and when he had spent most of his career as a respected member of the court of King Philip IV of Spain, shows the Infanta surrounded by her maids of honour and a few other peripheral members of the royal household. The King and Queen can be glimpsed reflected in a mirror at the back of the room, while through an open door the receding figure of a court official can be observed, looking back rather nervously, perhaps to make sure that everything is in order. The commanding figure of Velasquez himself stands before his enormous canvas, brush and palette in hand. The room is unlit, although the figures are bathed in what is presumably daylight streaming in from the right.
This great work can be admired on many levels: as a composition, busy but with complete artistic integrity; as an example of Velasquez’ superb draftsmanship; as an intriguing historical document; and (the trappings of royal splendour apart) as a rather appealing domestic scene.

Picasso:"‘Las Meninas’(after Velasquez)"

This work by Picasso many would find puzzling, in that it is a bizarre representation, perhaps even a skit, on a celebrated old master. The Velasquez is an extraordinary work, in that it achieves perfect compositional balance of a number of elements which both singly and as a group are really rather mundane. Undoubtedly the figure which dominates and exudes confidence is that of the artist himself. About the rest of the group there is a curiously vulnerable air, almost as they had been caught unawares by a camera. This would be compounded by their awareness that the artist was not in the habit of “gilding lilies”! So what is Picasso trying to achieve? It should be pointed out that at the time this was painted he was well into (perhaps coming out of?) his “sur-real” phase, when his configuration was becoming increasingly eccentric, verging on the cartoon and caricature in manner, and yet uncannily expressive of his subjects. Here we see the figure of Velasquez as even more dominant, towering above everybody and everything, leaving them very sketchily rendered, in the case of the dog and one of the maids-in-waiting, merely blank within rough outlines. Enough said: however one reacts to Picasso’s work, particularly in its later phase, its capacity to command attention, to fascinate, and to stimulate emulation (and also controversy) cannot be denied.

“Picasso Challenging The Past” runs at the National Gallery till 7th June, with opening up to 9 p.m. on Thursdays. It’s a must.


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