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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Mais qu’a donc peint Picasso?

by Maurice Ulrich

The Picasso Revolution: What Ever Did Picasso Paint?

Three shows at the Grand Palais, the Louvre and the Orsay Museum in Paris - with nearly three hundred paintings - evoke Picasso’s relations to art history and to the great masters. This exceptional event is an opportunity to look back on an artist who was most probably the major painter in the twentieth century. This exceptional event is an opportunity to look back on an artist who was most probably the major painter in the twentieth century.

Translated Saturday 11 October 2008, by Isabelle Métral

What ever did Picasso paint? An eye here and a foot there, a crooked nose…” The crooked nose was put in on purpose...” he said concerning Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (the young ladies of Avignon). “I did it deliberately so that people were forced to see a nose.” Les Demoiselles, painted in 1907, which he himself had called “the Avignon brothel” and even “the philosophical brothel” marks a real break, namely the true emergence of Modern Art.

Even his closest friends were overwhelmed. "Picasso", Georges Braque said : “had been ‘drinking turpentine and spitting fire’ ” [1] Guillaume Apollinaire, a close friend, was tongue-tied, Matisse fulminated. The monster Picasso remained indifferent: “I don’t care a bit, I am like the giraffe who does not know he’s a monster. This judgment comes from the other side of the fence.”

But nothing seemed to foreshadow such a massacre in painting; Picasso’s Blue period was much in favour, despite or because of its melancholy; his Rose period, so graceful, elegant and just as melancholy often elicited passionate praise. If he admitted to being influenced by Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, sometimes, not yet by Cézanne, still he painted normally, with a prodigious talent, yet normally still and was praised by critics. His paintings sold well, he no longer lived in the destitution he had shared with his partner Fernande Olivier in that strange Montmartre house called the Bateau-lavoir (laundry boat) [2] With Fernande precisely he went off to Spain for a few months’ holiday which they spent at Gosol in the Catalan Pyrenees.

On his return his manner of painting had changed: he had met with Iberian sculpture. In a 1906 self-portrait he resorted to a kind of brutality, which evokes a mass carved out of wood. He did the same with the portrait of Gertrude Stein, a friend of his, a writer and art collector. To those of his friends that wondered about the picture’s resemblance to the model he said confidently:” Don’t worry, she’ll eventually get to look like her portrait.” While Gertrude Stein herself said: “It’s the only portrait of me that is still me.”

What ever did Picasso paint ? The paradox is that he who putatively lurked as a Jack the Ripper figure over Modern Art was the very one who remained the most intimately attached to the art of painting and, indeed, to the history of art, in general . The boy who, from a very early age, had lived in close proximity to the masters, was soon to confront himself openly with the greatest, Delacroix, Manet, Velasquez, David, Poussin, by reinterpreting their paintings in a series of variations, while he never ceased to converse with Goya, El Greco, Titian, Rembrandt, Ingres - and, of course, with Cézanne …
It may be worthwhile going back to Picasso’s childhood.

He was born in Malaga in 1881. His father taught drawing and young Pablo’s earliest words (so the story goes) were to ask for a pencil. He was to draw very fast, like his father: pigeons and pigeon’s feet. At the age of eight, he painted his first oil painting El Picador. On the whole it may look rather naïve at first sight. But everything is accurate: the horse’s legs, the neck, the position of the head, the rider’s position. The balancing of colours, the composition make of it a true little picture. Not a child’s drawing. “I never drew like a child," Picasso was later to say (modesty was not always his forte). "At the age of twelve I drew like Raphael.” Well, maybe he was not modest but that was the truth. When he was fourteen – his father, by then, taught at Barcelona’s Fine Arts Academy, he passed the entrance exam to the school, although he was too young to be on the rolls. He had to execute several paintings and drawings in different fields and managed to do in one day what it took other students a month to complete - all the members of the jury were flabbergasted.

“A man cannot repeat himself even if he wants to! To repeat is to go against the laws that govern the spirit,” the painter said in 1935, in an interview with critic Christian Zervos. He never went back on that promise: he was only 16 when he gave up attending classes he no longer needed. But he did spend a lot of his time with the artists and writers that counted in Barcelona, whom he met in the tavern Els Quatre Gats. It was in this tavern that he held his first exhibition in 1900 with a hundred and fifty drawings or sketches of his friends - artists, poets and musicians. He already cut an impressive figure in that crowd. But, for him, that did not suffice. Paris was what he wanted; so, he settled in Montmartre. He painted and devoured all the museums in the French capital, all of which he visited regularly. All of them, indeed, for he was not content with paintings. All forms of art, all art objects excited his insatiable curiosity, even the bad paintings sold on the flea market, the chromos, and popular Epinal prints [3], everything that could offer him “signs”… He made friends with poet Max Jacob and, as in Barcelona, very soon became a major figure in Parisian artistic circles. Most were penniless and lived in unheated flats but they carried worlds within them. And as Marcel Proust said, "there are as many different worlds as there are artists".

As many different worlds? That may well be one key to what Picasso painted. In 1926 he wrote a letter on art which begins with the famous sentence : “People generally take me to be some kind of researcher: I am no researcher, I am a finder.” And further down:“You never copy nature, no more than you imitate it, you let imaginary objects take on real appearances. The thing is not to start from painting to target nature: it’s the other way round, it is nature that should lead to painting. There will be painters that change the sun into a yellow spot, but there will be others who, through their art and their intelligence, turn a yellow spot into the sun (…) I believe that the origin of all painting is to be found in a vision that is subjectively organized, or one that is inspired as it was with Rimbaud.” A vision subjectively organized, surely, and in order to break the code and clichés of representational painting. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (to go back to them for a short while) mark a rupture from Ingres’ Bain Turc (Turkish bath), where Ingres, himself, in his representation of a group of nude concubines lounging voluptuously in the opulence and the boredom of their gilded cage, raises the question of our colonial perception of those oriental harems?

A few years ago, an exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris gathered paintings by the greatest painters around the theme of the Mediterranean – painters who had grappled with the rendering of its light more or less felicitously. But Picasso, with la Flûte de Pan (Panpipes) and its two figures against the blue background, opened the visitors’ eyes to another world. The Mediterranean is not just water, plus some sun, plus a few beaches, trees and flowers. That’s good enough for the "Bronzés III" [4] gang! The Mediterranean is a myth, a concept, a history, culture in the word’s deepest meaning."Nature", Oscar Wilde said, “imitates art” [5]. In a text written in 1945 entitled “All of painting is nothing but signs”, Picasso took up the same idea: “We owe our image of nature to painters. We perceive nature only though them. Normally one sees no further than the reproduction offered by 17th-century classical painters like Poussin. The image they give is accepted as being true nature because their syntax is firmly established. But we have no proof that that particular image of nature is truer than other images proposed in other periods. To tell the truth, it’s all about signs.”

To make signs, to designate: “One should not imitate life, one should work like life. Work like life itself and feel one’s branches growing. One’s own branches of course, not nature’s. That’s what I am doing now, no?” Or again, speaking out against “style” which holds the painter prisoner – prisoner to a manner he must repeat: “Down with style! Has God got a style? He made the guitar, Harlequin, the basset, the cat, the owl, the dove, like I do. The elephant and the whale, OK, but what about the elephant and the squirrel? A jumble. He made what did not exist. And so do I. He even made painting. So do I.” No style, then. But the means or tools that are needed, when they are needed. Picasso’s painting often changed - like the women he loved: Olga, Paul’s mother, with her classical, Ingres-like profile, Marie-Thérèse Walter, so voluptuously sinuous, Dora Maar with her sharp, red nails, Dora the woman who wept as disaster brewed and who took snapshots of Picasso while he painted Guernica.

A German officer once visited Picasso’s studio on the quai des Grands Augustins and discovered Guernica. “Did you do this?” he asked; “You did” was Picasso’s reply. Guernica was the Basque town which was razed flat by Nazi bombers, the first instance of civilian bombing in history, one of the most terrible episodes in the Spanish war. Against this war Picasso fought with all his might, and with him many intellectuals and artists, and communists whom he joined in 1945. Yet in Picasso’s Guernica, there is not a single bomber, nothing that looks like Guernica, only stylistic elements borrowed from Ingres, with profiles from the painting entitled Le Rêve d’Ossian (Ossian’s dream), where black and white prevail à la Goya, a neighing horse also borrowed from Ingres. But the intimate, mental panorama of war reveals more about war than any mere battleground scene. Now Guernica is undoubtedly the major 20th –century painting.

For Picasso’s painting is not “instinctive”. Intelligence guided the genius of his hand. One too often overlooks the fact that he wrote poetry and plays. All his life he moved among writers and poets. In a snapshot taken (by Brassaï) at his home after a private reading of his play le Désir attrapé par la queue (Desire Caught by its Tail) in 1944, one will recognize Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Michel Leiris, Jacques Lacan, Valentine Hugo, Simone de Beauvoir. Raymond Queneau, Braque and Brassaï attented, too. Sartre played a part, Dora Maar another… On one of the many evenings he spent at Gertrude Stein’s he dined in the company of Stravinski, Marcel Proust and James Joyce; on another occasion, in his studio, he and Françoise Gillot dined with Jean-Paul Sartre, Aragon and Charlie Chaplin, who did a clown’s number over the dessert…

In 1945, in an interview with Simone Téry for les Lettres francaises  [6] (over which Aragon then presided), Picasso answered in a written note to those who wanted him to explain that art and politics have nothing in common : “What do you think an artist is? A fool with only his eyes if he is a painter, ears if he is a musician, or a lyre in every corner of his heart if he is a poet, or even if he’s a boxer, just his muscles? On the contrary, he’s at the same time a political being, constantly attentive to the heart-rending, fiery, or happy events of the world, moulding himself in their image. How ever could one take no interest in others, and by virtue of what ivory-clad nonchalance live at a distance from that life which they so generously share with you! No, painting is not meant for interior decoration. ! It is an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.”

But there remains a question: who is the enemy?


Editor’s notes:

[1Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New, London, 1991, p.24

[2The expression ’ Bateau-Lavoir ’ refers to the building’s resemblance to the laundry boats which used to float on the Seine Le Bateau-Lavoir was a squalid block of buildings in Montmartre, Paris; famous because at the turn of the 20th century a group of outstanding artists lived and created there… This wooden structure used to be a piano factory; with just one tap for water, poorly heated and made up of cobbled together studios, it acted as a melting pot for Modern Art at the beginning of the 20th century and was later christened the ‘Central Laboratory of painting’ by Max Jacob. The ‘Band of Maniacs’ who occupied this block of studios was very often a mix of different nationalities. All in their twenties and penniless, the occupants were, however, going to challenge the standards set by classical painting which had already been led a merry dance by the impressionists some years earlier. Amongst the many writers and artists to lodge there were Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Mac Orlan, Modigliani, Van Dongen and Juan Gris. On his arrival at the Bateau Lavoir, Pablo Picasso set about revolutionizing painting with his famous cubist work which he painted in 1907: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. (http://www.montmartre-guide.com/hi/history-and-famous-places-in-montmartre/page1/i16/the-bateau-lavoir-laundry-boat-.html) ..

[3Épinal prints were prints on popular subjects rendered in bright sharp colours, sold in France in the 19th Century. (The expression image d’Épinal has become proverbial in French and refers to an emphatically traditionalist and naïve depiction of something, showing only its good aspects)

[4The French box office success "Les Bronzés III", a broad farce about a hapless group of French holidaymakers, did not feature among the winners of Academy Awards. It was filmed on location on the beautifully preserved north-eastern coast of Sardinia.

[5Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life", Oscar Wilde (1854-1900): The Decay of Lying: An Observation (1889).

[6"Picasso n’est pas officier dans l’armée française," Lettres Françaises (Paris), V, 48 (24 March 1945).


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