Deconstructing the Genius: ‘Picasso: Masterpieces …’ at the de Young Museum

Pablo Picasso's "Massacre in Korea" (1951)

The Picasso of the contemporary American imagination and the Picasso of flesh and blood deserve adequate distinction. Because of his universally accepted greatness, it’s easily taken for granted that the same painter could produce both the glowing anthem-portraits of his Rose Period and jagged political commentary such as “Guernica.” It doesn’t help that Picasso’s reputation is so gargantuan as to be nearly self-propagating—nor that his name has not only earned a requisite mention in every elementary- and high school visual arts class, but become a descriptor, synonymous with excessive artistic ability. All of this results in a numbed appreciation for the man himself: a hallowed agreement on his importance that, counter-intuitively, lets much of his richness fall by the wayside.

But when pieces born of markedly disparate periods of his life find themselves side by side in an exhibition, the anesthetizing fog vanishes. In its place is an awe that such a multifaceted talent ever lived, along with many questions—questions that artistic consensus generally put to rest decades ago, but questions worth asking again. Gone, for sure, is any sense of homogeneity; experiment, instinct, and the process of trial and error stand out instead. In Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris, the extensive collection of masterpieces and tangents on display in the de Young Museum in San Francisco, the artist’s body of work absconds from whatever pedestal it’s been placed on in the past half-century to pursue a hundred different modes of brilliance. (The show closes on October 10.)

Much of the de Young show focuses on explicating the development of the Spanish artist over the course of his career. The erratic path the painter took to international prominence is mapped out, with every major period or movement included. The paintings range from the astutely somber works of the Blue Period, demarcated by characters from the lower rungs of society, to the terrifying and electric motifs of the work that followed his encounter with poet and painter Dora Maar in 1935. And the subject matter is equally varied. In the 1937 painting, “La Femme qui Pleure [The Weeping Woman],” Picasso depicts Maar’s tear-streaked face with a vividness that brings the human form to the brink of inhumanness. But Picasso is not only interested in the delineation between human and non-human; many of his works concern themselves with objects and their relation to background, landscape, or potential—and political—interpretation.

Of all the pieces that fall into the aforementioned category, the 1942 sculpture “Tete de Taureau [Bull’s Head]” may be one of the artist’s most memorable achievements. Fashioned out of found materials, in this case a bicycle seat and handlebars, the sculpture questions the eye’s immediate classification of shape and the meanings viewers assign to objects. When first viewed, the iconic outline of the bull’s head is unmistakable; only upon further examination do the seat and handlebars make themselves apparent. Even when they do, though, cognitive dissonance ensues. The sculpture oscillates between bull’s head and bicycle seat; how can one thing be both itself and something else at the same time?

If there were an overarching question tying together the hundreds of diverse works included in the collection it would be the one above. Faced with “Tete de Taureau” and paintings such as “Paysage aux Deux Figures [Landscape with Two Figures],” the brain struggles to differentiate between subject matter and background, between what counts as form and as content. That the painting contains a landscape is immediately clear—but not so much the two figures. Enmeshed in the tree trunks bordering the scene, the human forms likewise emerge secondarily, as supplements to the blockish and geometric contours that constitute the supposedly natural scene. Similar to other paintings from Picasso’s African period, the piece appropriates a palette of bold colors and thick lines. There’s something almost eerie in the seconds required to search for the figures referenced by the title. It’s not so troublesome that the bodies require effort to be found, but that, once found, they aren’t convincing enough to be either fully human or fully a part of the natural scenery. Like so many other ostensibly human forms in various pieces across the exhibit, they resist categorization: they’re at once representations and abstractions.

In keeping with this questioning of definition, another endeavor threading through the segments of Picasso’s development is his experimentation with the notion of familiarity. Every perceivable state is explored, from recognizable to foreign. Light and shadow play a huge role in this determination, governing the milky pastels of the Blue Period and the unapologetic violence of the paintings inspired by the Spanish Civil War, including the landmark “Guernica” and its 1951 cousin, “Massacre en Corée [Massacre in Korea].” The latter work, a depiction of the 1950 Sinchon Massacre in North Korea, has often been translated as a commentary against the American intervention in the Korean War. Whereas sizable swaths of other works in the collection find their strength in ambiguity or evasion—or even practiced mimicry, as with the 1901 oil painting “La Mort de Casagemas [The Death of Casagemas],” a portrait of a deceased friend that draws heavily on the dappled, multicolored strokes of Van Gogh — “Massacre in Corée” is frank and forthright, the horrors it illustrates quickly discernible. Like Goya’s “El Tres de Mayo de 1808 [The Third of May 1808],” which also pictures a firing squad and its victims, the piece’s spatial bifurcation dictates clearly who the attackers are and who is being attacked. (As curiously relative as many things seemed to Picasso, morals, at least in this painting, don’t appear to be among them.)

By comparing works of drastically different eras in the evolution of Picasso’s artistry, the exhibition highlights—perhaps inadvertently—just how misguided the pigeonholing of any artist into a singular categorization can be, and just how messy the process of artistic transformation is. “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child,” the show quotes him as saying, and the selected works here pound that sentiment home with every brushstroke or pencil line, no matter how straight or crooked. This striving toward simplicity informs his attempt to wrestle with every permutation of form. And this is pretty much what he did: he learned to paint like Raphael, like Van Gogh, to compose a scene like Goya, and to emulate any number of other painters worth their salt, contemporary or otherwise. But in that progression of helter-skelter apprenticeships something else emerged—something that, decades after his death, still commands a reverence at the mention of his name.

By all standards Picasso was a genius. But for every direction he took, it seems, there was a corresponding dead end that necessitated a new start somewhere else; for every piece tossed out or done as an exercise, ten more original accomplishments took its place. Even though it’s not for a lay viewer like myself to articulate or even defend a particular hierarchy of importance in the vast library of Picasso artworks, this much is clear. It’s easy to lose sight of the long, twisty road that led to his name becoming virtually synonymous with art itself. Standing before all 25.6 feet of “Guernica,” for instance, in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, or any other inescapably disturbing masterpiece, the frustration of tossed-out notes and sketches fizzles into background: the impression is such that the creation, if not divinely inspired, seems as close as humanity might come to such a thing.

The portrait of Picasso presented at the de Young never exudes a vibe of inauthenticity, even from the most seemingly routine works or those less noticeable outright. Rather, every piece reads as a journal entry from an investigation of what constitutes “human” in various incarnations: vaunted, degraded, reformed, exalted, re-shaped. Though it might initially seem impossible to know exactly what’s being portrayed in some of Picasso’s less familiar portraits, paintings, or sculptures, traces of humanity turn up in every one without exception. In a series of studies on women’s bodies presented alongside each other, some of which were done as practice for the 1907 painting of the inhabitants of a brothel, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon [The Young Ladies of Avignon],” the human body transitions from a photographic sketch into a medley of curves and angles, and from there on into shapes. Likewise, the 1911 painting “Homme a lá Guitare [Man with a Guitar/The Guitar Man]” is much more dissociated than the haggard realism of its 1903 counterpoint, “Le Vieux Guitariste [The Old Guitarist].” Still, elements of the human are irrefutably there—as bizarre and uncomfortable as they might ever be, but never so fractured that they can’t be put back together again.

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