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Your Show of Shows

Picasso: Oeuvres reçues en paiement des droits de succession 1979 to January 7, 1980

catalogue of an exhibition at the Grand Palais, Paris, October 11,
Editions de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 325 pp., 120 F

Pablo Picasso: A Retrospective” 1980

an exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, May 22 to September 16,

Pablo Picasso: A Retrospective

edited by William Rubin, chronology by Jane Fluegel
The Museum of Modern Art/New York Graphic Society, 464 pp., $45.00

Picasso: The Cubist Years 1907-1916 A Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings and Related Works

text by Pierre Daix, catalogue compiled by Pierre Daix, by Joan Rosselet
New York Graphic Society/Little, Brown, 375 pp., $125.00

Some twenty-five years ago, Picasso had the contents of his Paris studio shipped to the villa he had recently bought at Cannes. Among the treasures, household goods, and accumulated rubbish—the artist was a compulsive hoarder—were seventy portfolios. The day Picasso decided to go through these, I happened to be present. Few had been opened since 1939, some not since 1914. Although Picasso was vague about what was in the portfolios, there was reason to believe that they contained most of the works on paper that he had kept for himself, because they were too precious, personal, exploratory, or else too scabrous to exhibit, let alone put on the market. And here we should bear in mind that, as he grew older, Picasso retained much of his best work, drawings especially. So it was with the trepidation felt by Howard Carter when the first pick-axe probed Tutankhamen’s burial chamber that we watched Picasso fiddle tantalizingly with the knots.

Picture our dismay when the artist threw open a bulging portfolio and gleefully showed us sheet after sheet of paper, some of it to be sure emanating from eighteenth-century Italy or nineteenth-century Japan, but all uniformly blank. “Far too good to use”—the artist knew he could count on our emphatic denials. Was Picasso up to one of his celebrated teases? Was he perhaps reenacting the Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu? No, the next portfolio contained Ingresque portrait drawings, many of them unpublished, of family and friends; another disgorged papiers collés, some not even glued together, and so forth. Sometimes there would be a disappointment—reams of identical posters, old newspapers—more often surprises: one of Rimbaud’s exercise books, numerous lithographs by that rare print-maker, Rodolphe Bresdin, quantities of Picasso’s poems (why haven’t more of these been published?), and some puzzling watercolors of large heads. Early Marie Laurencins? Wrong, they were the amateurish oeuvre, what little remained of it, of Picasso’s first maîtresse en titre, Fernande Olivier. “No worse than any other woman painter,” Picasso said.

As Picasso scanned his own drawings, I could not help being struck by his total concentration, at the same time scary detachment about himself. It was as if he were examining work he had never seen before by an artist quite unknown to him. “Je est un autre“: Rimbaud’s disturbing line came forcibly to mind. “Not bad,” he could comment, but more in the spirit of a teacher going over a student’s work than in pride of execution or ownership. “Wouldn’t the Museum of Modern Art like to get their hands on all this for their up-and-coming show?” (this was in 1956), Picasso grinned malevolently. “This is what I call a retrospective,” and all of a sudden he made a great to-do about locking everything away.

Twenty-three years passed before Picasso was to have his retrospective—at the Grand Palais in Paris last summer. It consisted of all the paintings and sculpture and the best of the drawings and prints (roughly a quarter of the artist’s estate) which the French government had accepted in lieu of taxes, and was a most moving exhibition. This was partly because Dominique Bozo (curator-in-chief of the newly founded Picasso museum) had exercised his right to first choice of the artist’s holdings with such skill that he had skimmed most of the unique or exceptional works—above all in the fields of cubism and sculpture—off Picasso’s Picassos. (Poor heirs!) But it was also refreshing because the composition of the show was dictated by the wayward, even aleatory pattern of the artist’s collecting rather than the all too predictable preferences of art historians.

Before honoring the late artist’s promise to make major loans to the retrospective that would take over the entire Museum of Modern Art in New York, Bozo was obliged to exhibit the best of this bequest in Paris. And it was perhaps inevitable, in view of the haste with which the exhibition was organized and the haphazard nature of the material at Bozo’s disposal, that the installation was slapdash, and the representation of the artist’s development spotty. But these defects were a virtue to the extent that they helped to evoke the prodigality and disorder of the artist’s various studios and conveyed the feeling that somewhere in the vicinity work was still in progress. The display of these private treasures brought Picasso back in spirit. It was as if he were still around.

More to the point, this show contained none of the second-rate work that the artist allowed to flood the market in later years. Nor was there the least whiff of the restorer’s lab or the bank vault, or of produce which had gone stale on gallery or institutional walls. True, many of the works at the Grand Palais had been published or exhibited, but even those who thought they knew Picasso’s private collection by heart were stunned by revelation after revelation. New avenues of research were opened up by the early sketchbooks and drawings of 1906-1908—cubism in the making. As for the huge hoard of sculpture, some familiar, some unfamiliar, this proved yet again that Picasso is by far the most protean and inventive sculptor of this or any other century.

In its freshness and unfamiliarity, Bozo’s show had the virtue of enabling us to see Picasso anew. Not only did it effectively quell any doubts that may have arisen regarding Picasso’s stature, but it reinforced faith in his powers. For, in the opinion of many, the last paintings had tarnished the artist’s reputation; so inevitably had death.

The great exhibition that fills the entire exhibition space of The Museum of Modern Art is a far, far grander affair—a retrospective to end all retrospectives. It is of course big, but not that much bigger than the Paris show in 1966-1967. The difference is that it is much more discriminatingly chosen and much more handsomely installed. For once full justice has been done to the variety of genres, styles, media, and techniques that makes Picasso the most prodigious and versatile artist of all time. Instead of splitting things up into “periods,” the organizers, William Rubin and Dominique Bozo, have emphasized the continuity of Picasso’s development. If this gives a spurious logic to the oeuvre, no matter. It makes for coherence and enables the artist’s energy to manifest itself in one vast wave instead of a succession of spurts.

Let us also record our gratitude—since nobody else seems to be doing so—to Alfred Barr, whose Picasso shows at MOMA in 1939, 1946, 1957, and 1962, exemplary catalogues, and perceptive acquisition policy where Picasso was concerned paved the way for the present exhibition. The fact that Barr has been struck down by illness is no reason for MOMA to forget him. How he haunts the place!

If there are gaps in the MOMA show, it is not the fault of the organizers, who are said to have left no string unpulled in their efforts to obtain key loans. So far as the US goes, the most conspicuous absentee is the National Gallery’s huge circus painting, Family of Saltimbanques (1905), but at least it is readily accessible in Washington. Far more disastrous is the non-arrival of the Russian loans: twelve irreplaceable works that chart the early course of cubism. Our condolences to Rubin, but he might have spared us the comment (New York Times, May 18) that these paintings will “be missed only by art historians.” From someone who has written so perspicaciously about these very paintings, this smacks of sour grapes.

Let us, however, concentrate on the overwhelming quantity of works that have been obtained, starting with the wealth of juvenilia. Much of this is unfamiliar, since it emanates from the artist’s estate, or from Picasso’s sister’s collection, now in the Museo Picasso, Barcelona. Earliest drawings, done when Picasso was eight or nine, bear out the truth of the artist’s claim that he never drew like a child, always like an adult. But, as the MOMA show reveals, Picasso’s youthful virtuosity transcended the mechanical tricks of a child prodigy. From the age of fourteen or fifteen, he drew with instinctive formal insight and phenomenal authority. Likewise the brushwork of his earliest paintings has an energy and sensibility that are astonishingly mature, and at odds with their juvenile sentiment of subject.

Later in life, Picasso used to say that his innate facility had been more of a curse than a blessing, that he had always had a hard time making things difficult for himself; and in this respect Cézanne was to be envied for his initial lack of technical accomplishment. It would have been simple to fall back on slick bravura effects like the other Barcelona artists. Instead Picasso forced himself to look at whatever was in front of him as if it had never been looked at by him or anyone else before. And it is this conflict between the hard way and the easy way, between originality and déjà vu, that gives the early work its special character.

It is instructive to follow Picasso’s early search for a style as well as an identity through the works of his Barcelona period, especially in the precocious self-portraits that reveal the artist trying out a succession of masks and roles: eighteenth-century aristocrat, fin-desiècle visionary, down-at-heel bohemian, top-hatted dandy, and many more. Interesting that the man who was to become the greatest manipulator in the history of art started his manipulative games on himself.

Meanwhile Picasso had the good fortune to spend his formative years in a city that was one of the most progressive in Europe. Thanks largely to Gaudi, Barcelona had become a hotbed of art nouveau, and the young artists and poets who befriended Picasso kept in touch with the latest developments in Paris, London, and Vienna. Passionate admirers of Nietzsche, they subscribed—some of them at least—to a semi-serious belief that the century about to dawn would see the emergence of a glorious new art and the coming of a Messianic artist: a Nietzschean superman with a Dionysiac style. A self-portrait of this period (not in the show), which the artist inscribed three times over with the words “Yo el Rey,” suggests that Picasso implicitly believed in his divine right as an artist and also saw himself fulfilling this regal role—stupor mundi! And two other prophetic drawings which are in the show, both entitled Pierrot Celebrating the New Year, and which, it is significant, are dated January 1, 1900, hint that the “King” might on occasion double as a clown.

It was not until Picasso left Barcelona for Paris that his stylistic oscillations were to assume a fixed pattern in the triste mannerisms of the so-called Blue period. But for all its bittersweet charm, this style depended too much on academic virtuosity to satisfy the artist for long; and his tubercular models are depicted in terms that are too picturesque, too full of self-pity to carry much conviction. No wonder Picasso later dismissed the etiolated subjects of this phase as “nothing but sentiment.” Here exception must be made for certain portraits and La Vie (1903), the haunting allegory of impotence inspired by the suicide of the artist’s friend, Casagemas, two years earlier. Otherwise, I find the Blue period more interesting iconographically for the first intimations of certain obessive themes—for instance, the sleeper watched and the confrontation of two women with or without a mirror—and certain prototypes—those alienated, blank-faced waifs and melancholy outcasts—that recur again and again in the artist’s work.

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