The last col­lec­tor

Af­ter Pi­casso, no other artist would have such a dy­namic re­la­tion­ship with a per­sonal art col­lec­tion, writes Rex But­ler

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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)

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