Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe, after Manet 1961 Musée Picasso, Paris (MP216) © RMN / Jean-Gilles Berizzi / Succession Picasso / DACS 2009

Pablo and the Past

28th February 2009

Jill Glenn reviews Picasso: Challenging the Past – a new exhibition at the National Gallery that explores the artist’s complicated relationship with the Old Masters.

Galleries must constantly reinvent artists, in order to attract new, or the same, audiences to see them. Challenging the Past shares around half the work on show with the recent Picasso et les maîtres exhibition in Paris, which explored similar ground, but the National Gallery’s offering promises to be a more accessible crowd-pleaser.

It seemed curious at first, that the works which curators Christopher Riopelle and Anne Robbins believe that Picasso is acknowledging are not included here (although many can be seen, of course, in the Gallery’s permanent collection, just a few steps away in the main halls). In fact, though, their exclusion makes a lot of sense. For one thing, it prevents the show from being unrealistically bloated, and therefore spilling out of the perfectly proportioned Sainsbury Wing in which it is so sympathetically housed; for another, it stresses, rather than diminishes, the sheer volume of references in Picasso’s work. His art is at home within a broad European tradition, crystallising those influences into a body of work that transcends his wealth of sources. His debt to the Old Masters is evident, but what strikes most clearly is his own development, his own reinvention of himself. There is a willingness – a desperation, even – not only to evolve naturally but to create change actively and aggressively. It’s all admirably exposed here.

The constant, active dialogue with the past was his own preoccupation, and now is ours. Picasso deplored attempts by others to intellectualise, to theorise about their own or other artistic processes – he would doubtless deplore the thousands of words that will be written or said about Challenging the Past, all trying to pin down the coalescing of all his creative prompts – but his output confronts us and demands a response. “Say it with brushes and paint,” he would tell his contemporaries when they tried to analyse their artistic vision. For those of us who don’t paint, though, words are all we have to even approach an understanding or interpretation of what he could instinctively generate. It seems almost impertinent to try – but not as impertinent as ignoring it altogether.

Picasso: Challenging the Past could just as easily have been called Challenging Preconceptions. It certainly enabled me to address mine, and I venture to suggest that I’m not alone in possessing them. Picasso? Modernist; Cubist; simple; incomprehensible. Now I know differently. The National Gallery show, like Picasso himself, turns all your expectations upside down. Here are paintings of great classical merit; here is order, and line, and grace. Here is humour, and wit, and tender respect.

As a teenager I saw a reproduction of Picasso’s Child with a Dove every day of my school life, and I hated it. It quite put me off the man and all his work. Seen in isolation, individual Picassos might be off-putting, challenging, even (dare I say it?) unrewarding – but displayed within this intelligent, illuminating context, and hung with examples on similar themes, almost all are revelatory. Except Child with a Dove. Perhaps there’s an occasional sense that tenuous connections are being forced, but the assessments and the acknowledgements often seem spot-on. And the constant reminder that art does not exist in a vacuum allows the viewer to make comparisons and connections of his or her own; I found myself being reminded of Picasso’s contemporaries, or noticing ways in which more recent practitioners inherit from him, calling to mind artists as diverse as Henry Moore and Beryl Cook. It felt quite startling.

Each room in Challenging the Past is devoted to a particular theme: Self-Portraits in Room 1, for example; Nudes in Room 2; Pensive Sitters in Room 4. To me, this seemed entirely logical, allowing the curators to flag up everything they wanted us to understand about his approach to painting himself, say (would I have identified the Minotaur as a representation of the artist, if it hadn’t been hung with all his other interpretations of himself?)

There will be critics, however (I know; I could hear them muttering behind me), who will suggest that this thematic approach deprives us of the opportunity to see Picasso’s chronological development. I’m not sure I agree. The works in each room are all dated, naturally, so it’s still perfectly possible to see how his work changed over time within a given genre. And for those who are less familiar, or less knowledgeable, the thematic grouping creates the possibility of more insight, more of those lightbulb moments when you can look at two fundamentally disparate pieces of art and say ‘oh, I get it…’.

Women at their Toilette (1956), for example, is clearly a ‘modern’ piece with Cubist references, showing all sides of the body at once, but it inherits its theme and vision from Combing the Hair, painted fifty years earlier. That in itself derives from Degas, but has a radical simplicity that clearly prefigures what would become Cubism. To see the two pieces hanging within the same room, along with nudes as diverse as Large Bather (1921) and Sleeping Nude with Blonde Hair (1932), unlocks (for this non-Picasso lover at least) new appreciation and understanding of the complexity of Picasso’s thought and creative process.

Nearby is Seated Nude (1909-1910), a ‘portrait’ of Picasso’s friend and patron Gertrude Stein: early Cubism, so distorted and angular and monotonal that the form of the woman is almost indistinguishable at first, but also a faultless classical composition, a superb example of Picasso’s ability to digest and subvert the conventions that went before. You could hardly call Picasso a plagiarist, yet his plundering of the past is unashamed and self-conscious. Ostentatious, even.

There is a phenomenal amount to take in here, but you don’t need to love Pablo Picasso, or be possessed of the same impressive knowledge of art history as the exhibition’s curators, to appreciate it. It’s simply a collection of great art. That it is the output of one man merely makes it all the more astonishing.

Picasso: Challenging the Past (sponsored by Credit Suisse) continues in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery until 7 June. Visit www.nationalgallery.org.uk for tickets, times and more information.

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