The problem with Picasso

How to explain a great painter to the 21st century

Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso

The problem with Picasso

A few years after the death of Pablo Picasso, a New York band called Modern Lovers wrote a sarcastic song about how some people tried to pick up girls and got verbally abused for it, but ‘this never happened to Pablo Picasso.’

Why? Because ‘girls could not resist his stare,’ apparently.

Half a century after the old goat’s passing, a new exhibition is due to open in Brooklyn which suggests that quite a few people now think he was, well, less than savoury. Trying for a pun, the exhibition organisers have called it ‘Pablo-matic’.

They are not the first to have qualms about the most famous of all 20th-century artists. Churchill, himself a painter, once fantasised about kicking Picasso’s backside all the way down Whitehall, though this was more an expression of art criticism than of moral outrage.

I dare say the Paris resident was rarely to be seen traipsing down Whitehall, but in a sign of how much his adopted city has changed its opinion of him, a new exhibition there aims to make it easier for ‘young people’ to relate to his works by offering explanations for his use – or appropriation – of African art and his shabby treatment of women.

Thus, the Guardian reported that the Picasso Museum:

‘...chose not to flinch at the controversy surrounding the artist, whose troubled private life – namely his allegedly callous treatment of his wives, lovers and muses – has become more of a focus for young audiences than his work since the #MeToo movement. There is also renewed debate over Western artists’ use of African artefacts, which Picasso collected’.

Might these young audiences be figments of the curator’s imagination?

Badly-behaved men

If not, one wonders how they would cope with the private lives of some other male artists, those who were very badly behaved. It would be hard to appreciate Caravaggio if one could only think of him as a brutal murderer, yet those repetitive decapitations don’t evince a mild-mannered soul.

The more you learn about Gauguin, the worse he seems to get. There are some who think Walter Sickert, an outwardly respectable Victorian painter, was the real Jack the Ripper.

And we know for sure that Eric Gill did unspeakable things. The BBC has had to defend the restoration of his statue on the side of their building after it was attacked by a protester with a hammer.

Though no one accuses him of incest, bestiality or (in Caravaggio’s case) homicide, the further one delves into Picasso’s private life, the greater the conviction that he had dark secrets.

And so it is that the British fashion designer, Paul Smith, has tried to make the Paris exhibition more relatable for young people, by putting wallpaper behind the paintings and taking the edge off the white of the rooms with green astroturf and brown kraft paper.

A visitor looks at artworks titled 'Grande Nature morte au gueridon' (Great Still Life on Pedestal) (L) by artist Pablo Picasso at the Louvre Museum in Paris on October 11, 2022.

“For the world of pop that we are in now,” he says, “everything is very immediate on people’s phones, so it’s intentionally a very visual exhibition.”

It’s one thing to make Picasso smartphone compatible, but if his treatment of women or his cultural appropriations mean that we can’t bear the sight of him, that implies something far more fatal to his continuing hold on our esteem: obsolescence.

Taking the misogyny first, his behaviour was consistently bad. The odd thing is that he chose to record the crime scenes, repeatedly.

Taking the misogyny first, his behaviour was consistently bad. The odd thing is that he chose to record the crime scenes, repeatedly.

Over and over again he disassembled his muses into heaps of primary and secondary sexual characteristics, the faces oddly nightmarish, at least measured against any conventional standard of desirability.

Has anyone ever been turned on by Picasso's sloppy seconds? There is nothing that approximates the appreciation of female beauty in the vast majority of these weird caricatures. Instead, since caricature usually serves as a form of attack, it's as if Picasso has got it in for his sitters.

Appropriation of African art

The other thing to which sensitivity curators object is his supposed appropriation of African art.

In most instances, Picasso was a bit of a sphinx in interviews.

He confined himself to self-promoting soundbites or bits of cod philosophy, amply illustrating just how rubbish artists can be when forced into the medium of words. But on at least one occasion this was not the case, and when talking sense for a change, he gave the game away.

In the spring of 1907, the arch-appropriator had visited the Palais du Trocadéro ethnographic museum and made a deliberate effort:

"…to examine these masks, all these objects that people had created with a sacred, magical purpose, to serve as intermediaries between them and the unknown, hostile forces surrounding them, attempting in that way to overcome their fears by giving them colour and form."

"And then I understood what painting really meant. It's not an aesthetic process; it's a form of magic that interposes itself between us and the hostile universe, a means of seizing power by imposing a form on our terrors as well as on our desires. The day I understood that, I found my path."

How odd it sounds, this dismissal of the 'aesthetic' coming from an artist. Yet suddenly the ugliness of his women makes sense. It comes from a struggle with their unknowability.

How odd it sounds, this dismissal of the 'aesthetic' coming from an artist. Yet suddenly the ugliness of his women makes sense. It comes from a struggle with their unknowability.

Incorporation of voodoo

Picasso eagerly adopted the methods of voodoo to cope with a desire that was also a terror. His prolific creation of images of women suggests that the power, once achieved, only left him wanting more. The desire to overcome them was insatiable.

Spanish painter Pablo Picasso poses in the 20th in his Paris' Clichy studio with the largest of his canvases for the field project.

Thus, the logic of voodoo led naturally to counter-aesthetic art. Its purpose was apotropaic. The transition from beauty to ugliness would be recorded in the demoiselles from Avignon, whose faces range from masklike beauty to downright ugliness.

If we find it hard to look at the demoiselles, and if the artist's private life repels us, perhaps it's because we prefer not to look a hostile universe in the eye. In contrast, Picasso's famous stare was unflinching. The old goat might have something to teach us after all.

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