The last collector
After Picasso, no other artist would have such a dynamic relationship with a personal art collection, writes Rex Butler
WPicasso and His Collection Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane. Until September 14.
HERE was Brisbane’s new art museum to go after its show of Andy Warhol? Where else but back to the beginning of modern art and Pablo Picasso. The latest blockbuster at the Gallery of Modern Art, Picasso and His Collection, presents 72 of the Spanish master’s works and about 100 from the collection accumulated during his life.
The exhibition, borrowed from the Musee Picasso in Paris, runs from full- blown masterpieces such as Cezanne’s Five Bathers ( 1877- 78) to curiosities such as Henri Rousseau’s Representatives of Foreign Powers Arriving to Salute the Republic as a Sign of Peace ( 1907), as well as various daubs and sketches presented to him by friends and admirers.
The temptation is to see Picasso’s collection as somehow the key to his work and his gift of it to France on his death as a last will and testament, explaining his work to future generations.
Included in the GoMA show is a small Courbet, Head of a Chamois ( 1875), acquired by Picasso in 1950, which was soon more or less translated into the language of cubism to become Goat’s Skull, Bottle and Candle ( 1952).
We are shown a headdress from Mabuiag, in the Torres Strait, that wound up in one of Picasso’s better known paintings, The Three Dancers ( 1925), which unfortunately is not in the exhibition. From Picasso’s holdings — not only of Cezanne, Braque and Matisse but also realist Louis Le Nain and impressionist Renoir — it becomes clear what he was looking at as he moved through various periods and stylistic changes. But even here, where the evidence for artistic connection seems most clear, things are not so simple. For what does it mean to say that Picasso was influenced by Cezanne’s Five Bathers , a claim repeated in every art history textbook and made implicitly by this show?
It’s easy to look back from Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon ( 1907), the famous brothel scene that is undoubtedly the most influential painting of the 20th century, and see Cezanne, but it is not so easy to look at Five Bathers and go forward to Demoiselles .
At a certain point the notion of influence and its assumption of an unbroken cultural continuity loses its usefulness. Observe the sequence of working drawings for Demoiselles — a couple of which are in the show — and one can see Picasso in the process of moving through Cezanne to become an original himself.
Henceforth it will be Cezanne who will be understood through Picasso, not Picasso through Cezanne.
Elsewhere, the notion of influence becomes even more complicated. Take, for example, the case of Renoir, whose work also features prominently in the show.
It is harder to think of a more extreme contrast than that between the formal innovation and sexual savagery of Picasso and the rococo- esque decorativeness and — to our eyes, at least — saccharine sentimentality of Renoir. Indeed, Picasso once said of his early career: ‘‘ We were 25 years old, Renoir was the rage and we had to do something else.’’
Yet, as Picasso moved into his neoclassical phase in the 1920s, he came to regard Renoir as a potential artistic source. In the exhibition, there is an extremely beautiful and quite moving charcoal sketch of the elderly Renoir by Picasso dated 1919- 20, as though Picasso were acknowledging his inspiration at the beginning of this new period of his career.
Picasso and His Collection is short on works
from the artist’s neoclassical style — one of the show’s disappointments — but this is perhaps rectified by an ingenious hang at the doorway just before the end of the show. On one side of the doorway is a late Seated Old Man ( 1970- 71), painted just a couple of years before Picasso’s death; on the other side is the anonymous photo of Renoir on which Picasso based his sketch 50 years before.
Looking closely at the old man seated in his chair in the painting, one can see the same hand cruelly twisted by arthritis that we see in the photo of Renoir. More profoundly, the work features the same green and orange colour scheme that can be found in Renoir’s Head and Shoulders of a Model ( 1916). It is simply astonishing that Renoir’s influence turns up here in such an uncanny and unexpected form so many years after Picasso acquired the painting.
Perhaps the most important lesson learned from Picasso and His Collection is that, even when we are able to discover the source of one of Picasso’s paintings directly, there is a limit to what this source can tell us about it.
Picasso’s collection is not at all the hidden key to his oeuvre, the Da Vinci Code through which we can unravel its mystery and that he would have preferred to keep out of sight.
On the contrary, as the many photographs of Picasso with his collection attest, he was only too keen to make us aware of the existence of his collection, to have it count as part of his work.
When Picasso’s collection was first shown publicly at the Louvre in 1978, critics were scandalised by the condition in which he kept his works and by the apparently missing artists from it ( Goya, Manet, van Gogh), as though Picasso had a duty to tell the truth about himself as an artist. But Picasso’s relationship to the works he stacked against his studio walls was the same as his relationship to the history of art generally: he understood them as an artistic resource, as partners in a dialogue, even as antagonists in a battle for supremacy.
It is obvious, for instance, that his relationship with Matisse — the other great influence on him after Cezanne — was fraught and double- edged.
Matisse’s portrait of his beloved daughter Marguerite ( 1906- 07) is featured extensively as part of the advertising for the show, as though to tell us that Picasso’s collection was a form of recognition extended to certain privileged peers.
However, as Hilary Spurling’s recent biography of Matisse reveals, Picasso and his friends used to throw rubber- tipped darts at this gift from Matisse while cruelly mocking him.
Then, during the period of most intense mutual influence, Picasso produced Nude in a Garden ( 1934), featuring the distinctive profile of his then lover Marie- Therese Walter, a red and yellow patterned cushion and an extraordinary scattering of the subject’s sexual organs across the painting.
In the setting, the patterning and the extended arabesque of the model’s neck, the painting is absolutely Matissean; yet the supercharged sexual content operates like a deliberate vulgarisation of the Matissean template, like obscene graffiti sprayed on the walls of a stately mansion.
In almost the opposite way, when we see Picasso take up African and Oceanic sculpture — again, the show is good on the sources but a bit thin on the works by Picasso manifesting their influence — he does so to indicate its difference from him: his inability to master its otherness or to make it entirely his own.
If in one way — as a whole series of shows have attempted to demonstrate — Picasso found a certain affinity between cultures, in another he tries to suggest, through comparison, the abyss separating them. We can see this in the show in the indian ink Head and Shoulders of a Woman ( 1907) or in the wonderful little painted wood Standing Nude of the same year.
Picasso was a prodigious artist, a titan like Shakespeare in whom the deepest currents of his culture can be seen to be embodied. Compare, for example, the still shocking sexual force of Picasso’s work with that of fellow Spaniard Luis Fernandez’s Erotic Compositions of the mid-’ 30s, which now appear kitsch. Or compare the superb unhesitating crispness of line in Picasso’s Portrait of Leon Bakst ( 1922) with the sloppy and all- too- easy caricatures of a gifted amateur such as poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau. In both cases, we have the difference between a talent that is of its time and a genius that defines its time and lives on.
But Picasso reminds us, too, of the deepest paradox of the entirely singular artistic personality: far from being closed to the influence of others, it is absolutely protean, open to an almost unlimited number of sources. And, as with the greatest artists, the question is not how well Picasso lives on in our age but how our age may be judged in the light of Picasso.
Brisbane’s GoMA is a classic contemporary art gallery, designed for blockbusters, and the building is intended to be part of the visitors’ experience as much as the works in display. But the tight, condensed pools of cultural energy that are Picasso’s paintings are overwhelmed by the cavernous spaces in which they are hung.
Picasso’s body of work, as the show tells us, grew in conversation with other artists and with art history in general. In the studio photographs found throughout the exhibition, shadows seem to speak of mystery, of the depth of association with the past.
This brightly lit and widely spaced exhibition, designed precisely for the crowds who are expected to see it, is the antithesis of the world from which Picasso comes.
This is not the fault of the gallery; indeed, GoMA is by far the most forward- looking gallery space in Australia. But, as we hesitate on the threshold before exiting the show, we may think for a moment about what is about to be lost. We pass from an intense engagement with art history and the struggle to forge a coherent identity from artistic precedents to today’s indiscriminate sampling of images, where artists can be anybody they like.
Picasso and His Collection is an essential show for imagining where art is going in the 21st century. It reveals what the greatest artist of the 20th century did with his past, thus raising the question of what we are to do with Picasso in ours. In even the challenging conditions of the contemporary art exhibition, he surges up like an unquiet ghost, louder even than the crowds who have come to see him.
Masterpiece: Cezanne’s influential work Five Bathers ( 1877- 78) is part of the Picasso and His Collection exhibition at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art
Out of Africa: An Ivory Coast mask
Shades of Renoir: Picasso’s Seated Old Man ( 1970- 71)