Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Lot of Picasso Goes a Short Way

Man with a Straw Hat and an Ice Cream Cone - 1938

The Seattle Art Museum has been running an exhibit of Pablo Picasso works from the Musée National Picasso in Paris. It's a larger-than-average show for the museum and they've promoted it heavily.

My wife has been gently hounding me to take her to see it for some time now, but we've been traveling a lot and only got around to doing the deed yesterday.

Crowds were large. I'd assumed that we'd simply waltz in, wave our museum membership cards at the ticket desk and then troop through the exhibit. Instead, we had a two and a half hour wait before our appointed entry-time slot. A chat with a museum staffer revealed that it was the holiday season (and perhaps the impending January 17th show closing) that was bringing in the masses.

When our turn finally came, all I could manage was a fast walk-though, pausing only in the section featuring photographs of Picasso, his women and other friends. The paintings and sculptures ranged from at least his Blue Period through the rest of his career, including the painting at the head of this post. I didn't notice very early works (which I'll be writing about soon).

Contrarian that I am, I can tolerate Picasso only in extremely small doses. Even the small-ish Picasso museum in Antibes, France was an overdose so far as I'm concerned. What I saw in Seattle was room after room, wall after wall of what I consider truly awful, pointless doodling. Doodles that, thanks to the public relations genius of Picasso and perhaps his art dealers, were often quickly painted with the potential for easy sales at good prices -- a situation beyond dreams for most artists.

Finally came the moment of climax and revelation. The Picasso exhibit's exit happened to empty into the museum's small collection of 15th - 18th century art. From crude, distorted Picasso, viewers confronted images that they could relate to as human beings -- setting aside any matters of artistic quality.

So why was there such a large crowd? Did most or all the attendees genuinely like Picasso's works? Did they come simply because Picasso is famous? Might they have come because -- formally or informally -- they acquired the notion that Picasso was A Great Master Who Must Be Loved -- Or Else! (I kid about the "Or Else." Sort of.)

It's possible that there have been studies dealing with art appreciation and how people with different degrees of art knowledge come to their current tastes. Perhaps I'll make time to do a Web search on this or maybe a reader already knows and might post a comment. In my case, Picasso was an artist that "everyone" (who counted, based on my reading when I was high school and college age) asserted had significance and greatness. So I bought into that perspective even though I found only a tiny number of his works likable.

I finally came to trust my instincts, which is why I hardly paused during my stroll through the rooms of the Seattle Picasso show.


kev ferrara said...

The question that always strikes me is, why?

Why have schmucks been in charge of "high" culture for 100 years? Who has granted them the authority to establish what is the proper history of the art of the 20th century?

Why is conformity prized over independent thought among the milieu of the culture vultures? (Just as much as the Blockbuster Moveigoers and Kinkaide collectors)

Why can't people see that Picasso is just another cartoonist... one among hundreds of others, like Dik Browne, cy twombly, and Cliff Sterrett... except less funny.

Is it all politics? Or its twin sister, marketing? Was it once a joke or a ploy, but now too much money is invested to turn back?

Did Picasso once, at the very start, see a room full of Sorollas and decide he could never be a serious artist again?

David Apatoff said...

Don, I am not immune from your reactions (or Kev Ferrara's) to Picasso. In his astonishingly prolific career he went through long fallow and repetitive and slipshod periods. Yet, I do think Picasso had many powerful and innovative artistic highlights that continued into his late 80's.

I give him credit for concluding that after 500 years of representational oil painting, the world wouldn't need many more Bouguereaus and Moreaus. Artistic themes can only be developed so far, and techniques can only be refined so much, before they start to become precious and irrelevant. (The first Ingres was a genius. Will that still be true of the 10th Ingres?) I think that cubism was a worthy initial experiment in response to that circumstance, as was Les Demoiselles D'Avignon.

You wonder whether the attendees at the Seattle Picasso show "genuinely liked" Picasso's work. Well, probably not in the same sense that they genuinely like beautiful pictures of attractive subjects they'd hang on their walls. But isn't art that is troubling or mysterious or that is even vexatious worthwhile, if it makes you think?

What other artist would have the guts in his late 80's to come up with his 347 series-- a sexually explicit, graphically innovative collection of 347 images where the figures are converted into auto-plastic, nonvertebrate designs? Personally, I'd say about half of that series was tiresome and redundant, but that still leaves a lot of great drawing from an old geezer at a stage of life when most artists are too tired to pick up a pencil.

How to measure quality for this kind of stuff? I don't know of any "studies dealing with art appreciation" but I too have struggled with similar issues in a previous post.

I don't claim to have any answers but I think there is a lot of collateral activity around the great Picasso that helps us fill in some of the gaps. For example, I don't know how you feel about the illustrator William Steig, but personally I think his work was pretty unimpressive for 20 years until he fell in love with Picasso's drawings in the 1950s. By combining an illustrator's crowd pleasing instincts with Picasso's great freedom and esoteric style, Steig's work improved 500%. I think Steig's work, and the work of other admirers of Picasso, makes the good qualities in Picasso's drawing more accessible.

Donald Pittenger said...

David -- I have nothing against innovation. I think it's fine that modernism came along and did its aesthetic thing because it generated a number of ideas that all artists could evaluate and perhaps incorporate in their own work.

Two beefs that come to mind as I draft this comment are (1) the religion and politics of modernism and its successors, and (2) much of the art itself.

In the first case, ideologues of modernism have tended to disparage other approaches to art. To some extent, this has been slowly breaking down over the last 40 or so years, but an "establishment" remains strong -- particularly in architecture.

As for point 2, much modernist work was created with the goal of being "creative," often in a form that was shocking and attention-getting (the same holds for much po-mo work). A result is that works are less intellectually and emotionally rich than the more representational art: call most of them one or two dimensional at best.

As for Picasso, what he did after, say, 1920 was nearly all ugly in my opinion (so was a lot of pre-1920 painting) and I never really liked it as my post indicates.

I'll be writing about the early Picasso in a few weeks (once I do more reading). But let me mention that representational artists have plenty to "say." Picasso might have made the choice to become a strongly representational artist. And if he had become a great one, he would not have been another Bouguereau, Rembrandt or Goya: he would have been a Picasso because his unique self would have shown through no matter what his subjects might have been.

Kev -- Besides Sorolla, he might have wondered how well he stacked up compared to artists he knew in Barcelona around 1900. Ramon Casas, for example, was a better draftsman (though was older and more experienced, the latter being something Picasso might have overcome, given time).

kev ferrara said...

Donald... which reminds me to thank you for introducing me to Casas' work!

David, I keep coming back to the same question: Is there a reason to appreciate Picasso more than Cliff Sterrett? Or Jack Kirby? I am not against Picasso, or modernism. Unless it tries to set itself up and away from cartoons and graphic designs, which are its natural aesthetic bretheren, in my understanding. I detest marketing or politics having any effect on the evaluation of any artwork.

Fiend's Brave Victim said...

I was eagerly shown Guernica by my curator girlfriend this summer on my first trip to Madrid. I must admit that I struggled with it a bit, especially with Goya's second and third of may just around the corner. He sure as hell could draw an anguished mother and a disturbing horse, but after being struck by those I think I'd be tempted to say that I found the painting a bit dishonest. This may be partly to do with its context in the Reina Sofia (which I thought was actually a pretty piss-poor, typically regeneration-esque gallery), but also because I was so surprised at the modern-ness (for want of a better term) of the Goyas, beside which Picasso looked slack and affected. But what do I know. I did think some of his detail studies for Guernica, mainly of horses and mothers and displayed opposite the painting, were excellent.

Donald Pittenger said...

Victim -- I saw Guernica at the Sofia in October, but only casually, as I'd seen it several times before when it was at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I blogged about it on 2Blowhards. My theory is that absent an explanatory plaque, any knowledge of Picasso along with unfamiliarity with late-1930s history, a viewer would have no idea what the painting was about. Which could be the case a decade or two down the road.

It's a matter of being famous for being famous.

Fiend's Brave Victim said...

It's a good point, without knowing that 'it's Guernica and it's really famous and it's about the civil war and that', you'd struggle to spot its subject. Of course this is the same for a lot of non-representational art, but then most artists of that type actively shun being so specific...

I really like your blog by the way, and I was a fan of Blowhards too. It's very refreshing to read someone actively trying to find new ways to talk about art and aesthetics. Thanks and keep it up.