The co-founder and former cellist of Velvet Underground, John Cale, recorded a great song (written by Jonathan Richman) shouted in his hoarse, atonal voice: “Pablo Picasso / never got called an asshole / He could walk down your street / and girls could not resist his stare.” Cale added a wonderfully grinding, monotonous and discordant arrangement, then trails off with the somewhat redundant taunt, “Not like you.” (1)
Seeing the show of Picasso’s work at the Art Gallery of Ontario prompted me to hum along, if only because of how the show is marketed, in breathless one-word superlatives: “Genius. Rebel.” and so on. While one expects museum marketing departments to use myth-making and hyperbole to sell tickets, is such a worshipful atmosphere really helpful to understanding what he was thinking, or how Cubism helped shape and change modern vision and visual culture? But even art historians, who should know better, tell us we live in a world of “post-Cubist design principles,” attributing to the movement a “sweeping influence on contemporary and subsequent culture” that changed all of art and design, architecture and photography.(2) So, it makes me wonder.
A disclaimer: I don’t enjoy most of Picasso’s work. I think his color is muddy and vulgar (uninterestingly vulgar), and misses the point of exploring color. He was always drawing, not painting, and the rough contours that he outlined everything in equally miss the point of questioning the application of paint. His constant reference was past art and his target was the act representation, and indeed the idea of the individual genius itself. These are semiotic, social, and historical puzzles more than they are purely visual innovations or work that goes beyond the boundaries of the field. He should have been a cartoonist, actually – and I say that out of the greatest respect for comics and cartoons. Linear simplification and literal message was what his eye and hand always seemed to be doing.
There is one painting in the show that caught my attention, as it had all the sly earmarks of naughty Pablo, variously labeled Nude in a Garden, or Nudes in a Garden; or Female Nude in a Garden (you get the idea) from 1934. John McDonald puts it this way:
“Cubist devices had gradually been reappearing in Picasso’s work for over a decade. At this point of his career he would jump between styles as the mood dictated, breaking the body of a model into pieces and reassembling it in various artful ways.
Nude in a garden is an image of sensual abandon and submission, with Marie Thérèse compressed into a ball of pink flesh, with breasts, genitals and buttocks all on prominent display.” (3)
And this is taken as evidence of Picasso as “adoring lover,” not “the misogynist portrayed in various biographies.” Once I had puzzled out the various body parts, I noticed something quite central to the picture: yes, breasts, genitals and buttocks are all on prominent display, but so is her anus. It’s that single black smudge to the left, which in the original fades into drybrush as it smudges up and to the right, lending it a truly profound depth and realism. A masterful smear, and a perfectly vulgar (interestingly vulgar) celebration of the woman as completely exposed, all at once and at a glance, highly vulnerable and available.
Picasso is so much about biography, about his personal pleasures, conquests, and indulgent self that he is the perfect object of adoration. He doesn’t profoundly challenge how art works or the role it plays, or try to take us very far past the comfort zone of classical themes and subjects. He simply shifts his one message (the male ego dominated by its id, perhaps?) from style to style, and across different semiotic registers. He gives us the pleasures we deny ourselves, assholes that we are. For me, he embodies the logic of pornography quite perfectly, which is at least a nice change from the legion of tortured and self-damaging artists so often celebrated in art historical narratives.
These works do need to be seen and studied, as direct representations of their times and as exemplars of modernism that utterly dominated the visual conversation of art for decades. But they have also dominated art historical writing, and had a truly “sweeping influence” on the reception of painting and art, shaping so much of critical and, more to the point, resolutely non-critical writing and theory for almost a century.
If we argue that Picasso was a powerful leader in modern art’s struggle for an autonomous logic of form, for self-reference and self-definition, aren't there much more ‘advanced’ and challenging artists and works? (Why did he never really paint about painting, or move to the issues of, for example, non-objective abstraction?) And if we argue that he captured the social and political tenor of his times, aren’t there better examples of that, too? Like design, for example; or commercial comics and cartooning; or advertising, with its poundingly oppressive, infinitely varied and seemingly unstoppable application of the memes and idioms of visual messaging – just like Picasso, only better: more effective, more honestly pornographic.
Picasso, I think, keeps us rooted in the past; we really can’t “resist his stare.” He blinds us to the obvious: the most important art of the last century wasn’t about self-expression, or even art at all, but its defiant, irrepressible Other. That would be marketing, and what Debord called “spectacle,” the ways in which capital is visually expanded and publically expressed and coded across many media, in design, photography and illustration. Always looking forward, drawing its poetry from the future, not the past.
Oakville, ON / 2012.Aug.24
Oakville, ON / 2012.Aug.24
(1) John Cale, from Helen of Troy (Island Records, 1975).
(2) Mark Antliff and Patricia Leighten, Cubism and Culture (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001): 7. To their great credit, Antliff and Leighten have carried the tough arguments against the many overly formalist reading of Picasso, which imply he only ever thought about styles and his medium, placing him squarely in the anarchist and, later, Stalinist political currents of the day.