The Fallen Angel?

Pablo Picasso’s reputation as a dominant figure in twentieth-century art is unparalleled, fed by an extraordinarily diverse body of criticism that began in his early youth and continues unabated today. Throughout the century his work has attracted numerous champions as well as critics. When he was undisputed leader of the avant-garde, everyone wanted him on their team, from modernists, neoclassicists, and Surrealists to Communists. More recently he has been both claimed as an anarchist hero (by Patricia Leighten in Re-Ordering the Universe ), as well as in a movie, James Ivory’s Surviving Picasso (1996).

In her recent book The Picasso Papers, Rosalind Krauss has added a new variation to the legend: Picasso as the fallen angel. She regards his cubist collages—papiers collés—executed between 1912 and 1914 as the defining moment of a new system of meaningful signs, the crowning achievement of modernism; but she accuses him of turning his back on modernism after World War I in favor of “neoclassicism,” for her an uninspired, imitative art based upon “pastiche,” or borrowings from the past, which included such works as his drawings Sisley and His Wife, after Renoir (1919) and Sleeping Peasants (1919). She writes:

The period up to 1914 represents a triumphant development of the cubist logic, which with the advent of collage increasingly fashions a visual sign free to circulate within pictorial space, independent of any fixed referent, and thus wholly inconvertible: a signifier-as-token, indeed, in free play. This is the modernist, “true” Picasso. But the postwar period, so significantly announced by the Rosenberg exhibition [1919], is not only a return to the gold standard of visual naturalism. To the extent that this return via the imitation of a range of “classical” artists, from Poussin to Ingres to late Renoir, is conducted under the banner of pastiche, it has branded onto its very surface, as it were, the mark of its own fraudulence. Here is Picasso as counterfeiter, his act a blatant betrayal of the modernist project.

To account for Picasso’s alleged about-turn, Krauss, who has attacked the biographical approach to art, looks to developments in the psyche of the artist and argues, on the basis of Freudian theory, that “reaction formation,” in which “prohibited desires are turned into their opposite,” was responsible for his rejection of modernism. Her book is argued with great subtlety, but it is based on a number of false premises: it implies that there was a clear-cut break between Picasso’s cubist and classicizing work; it creates a false opposition between these approaches rather than appreciating their parallel development; and it alleges that Picasso’s artistic choices are to be explained by a psychological “structure of duplicity,” for which she offers no convincing evidence.

The years in which the fall of this Lucifer took place, between 1915 and 1919, have remained somewhat glossed over in the Picasso literature—including Krauss’s …

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Letters

The Picasso Papers’: An Exchange October 7, 1999