Friday, 1 May 2009

Picasso / Richter (Picasso)

Picasso, 'Seated Woman', 1920

She is thinking, and so am I, and quite possibly we are both thinking about Picasso - she, because she is his lover and is being depicted by him, I because I am looking at her knowing that without being too concerned with the knowledge. When it comes to artists I seem to prefer art to biography. Crazy, I know. There is a decent set of pictures from the current exhibition available here.

What am I thinking? I am thinking that Picasso is a genius draughtsman and a poor painter, by which I mean he has no great feeling for paint and is utterly indifferent to colour beyond a certain narrow range. All he is interested in is form and pattern and line, and in that respect he is quite magnificent. The colours are generally OK while they remain sombre but once beyond his safe palette of earth-colours plus the odd blue and green, he is just slapping the stuff on. In almost every case his drawings and prints are better than the paintings. The etchings especially are out of this world.

His formal sense consumes and recreates everything he comes across: Rembrandt, Velasquez, Delacroix... anyone. His daring and control are astonishing. His figures are composed of what appear to be inessential lines, a bulge here, an abbreviation there, a blitz of lines somewhere else, and yet they remain in energetic tension. - That surprisingly suggests that the essential is not the obvious, that the spine's relation to the sacrum for example is not simply an anatomical given in art, but a set of forms, a pattern that registers as energy. Surprise, surprise!

This is the work I sat down and stared at for some fifteen minutes and still only took in part of it:

It is one of the variations on Velasquez. It has such brio and humour. It is, in effect, an overt piece of visual metatext, metatext (working around another work) being something that appeals more and more to me as time goes on. And this example is so whole-hearted and delighted with both the original and itself, it makes me laugh inside so I feel stronger and happier in some way. It is as if the world were a furious array of languages, languages as dense as evolution itself, and that one could stand at the centre of these languages, as at the eye of the storm, and simply laugh at the fecundity.

For sheer lyrical beauty I go for the prints, the Vollard suite in particular, the gorgeous, decorative, luxuriant, meditative, dreamlike, erotic play of them but the black and white work in any medium is also full of life. As is the sculpture.

On the subject of erotic play, blah, blah, or vaguely so, I note a remark on one of those ever-annoying captions and bits of official commentary that talks of Picasso's fear of women. Fear? Well, maybe... But, give or take the occasional suggestion of the classic vagina dentata, it strikes me that for someone so frightened he seemed to return time and again to the root of his fear, both in art and life. And that he did so with a certain relish; that he was, in fact, clearly having a whale of a time. (A nice, and possibly not inappropriate, way of putting it?)

It reminds me of the occasion of Ana Maria Pacheco's exhibition at the Gas Hall, Birmingham some years ago, when the female curator looked me in the eye and said, 'Of course, what she shows is that men find women frightening.' To which I replied with just a slight widening of the eyes, 'Utterly terrifying.' She didn't quite know how to take this and conversation stopped for a second. Was I being ironic? I myself don't know, I only know I didn't want to be confronted with the latest platitude, one so certain of itself. The only possible response was to destabilise it.

And that is what most official state gallery information is. The latest platitude. That includes the recorded material they give you to listen to as you go round. To reverse Ben Jonson on his picture left in Scotland ("...And all these [his unattractive physical features] through her eyes have blocked her ears [to his pleas]...") - the commentary works through your ears to block your eyes. You can't be allowed just to look in case you get the wrong idea. You may not be presumed to possess eyes or intelligence. That intelligence, you are given to understand, is the possession of the very few who can speak the right language.

One notes that a great many people look longer at the labels than they do at the work. One supposes that what they really want is to be told what to say about a work. Been there, seen it, said the right thing.

Somewhere in there is an emperor in search of clothes. Sometimes, of course - just to be fair about this - it's a real emperor.


Mark Granier said...

"It reminds me of the occasion of Ana Maria Pacheco's exhibition at the Gas Hall, Birmingham some years ago, when the female curator looked me in the eye and said, 'Of course, what she shows is that men find women frightening.' To which I replied with just a slight widening of the eyes, 'Utterly terrifying.' "

Snap! Perfect. The Spirit of The Stairs was absent on that occasion.

Fiona said...

What an excellent post. I feel stronger and happier in some way for having read it.

Gwil W said...

Is the Picasso a painting of Carol Ann Duffy trying to think of a poem for the Queen?

jamie mckendrick said...

I like this distinction between Picasso as genius draughtsman and poor - or at least not that hot - painter, and think it works. Maybe why the early Cubist paintings are among his strongest - the palette's deliberately impoverished and the paint roughened and unpainterly,even sometimes,after Braque's example,mixed with sand. Agree too about the etchings, with the exception of the Franco cartoons.

George S said...

You mean 'The Dream and Lie of Franco' strip? Not a major work and a bit silly bit his standards.

One major line of drawing runs from Pisanello to Durer to Ingres to Picasso and the best of Hockney.

Another from, possibly, Tintoretto through Rembrandt through Bonnard, but I'm not sure about that one.

What do you think, Jamie? There were the tensions between the Poussinistes (draughtsmen) and the Rubenistes (colourists), between the intellectuals and the sensualists.

It's a hard choice, in my experience.

jamie mckendrick said...

Yes, that contrast between Poussin and Rubens is there in Reynolds's Discourses which I've only read snippets of in Blake's belligerent and hilarious annotations. Blake says "To My Eye Rubens's Colouring is most Contemptible. His Shadows are of a filthy Brown somewhat of the Colour of Excrement; these are filled with tints & messes of yellow & red.....Opposed to Rubens's Colouring Sr Joshua has placed Poussin, but he ought to put All Men of Genius who ever Painted. Rubens and the Venetians are Opposite in every thing to True Art..."
This contrast between (good)draughtsmen and (bad)colourists is schematized by Blake into a cosmic battle between Florentines Venetians:
Venetians, all thy Colouring is
no more
Than Boulster'd Plasters on a
Crooked Whore.
(Titian included). Blake's a woinderful artist but I don't think he can see colour. Colour brings out the Puritan in him.

George S said...

I know the Blakes well. I fed on Blake for several years but I think Blake is a rather good colourist. Not so much in the watercolours, which are a touch amateur I suppose but still gorgeous when seen with a book, but in the tempera works which seem to glow like gold brought up from a mine. It is the secret-chamber aspect of his paintings that resonates for me. And again it comes from a fairly restricted palette.

As a matter of fact I suspect colour sings most resonantly when it rises out of restriction. I remember admiring the early Chagalls where the impression of colour is intense but when I came to look it was chiefly because most of the picture was neutral. The neutrals were the springboard for the rest.

I think we have to get to the Fauves and Matisse before we get a very wide range of colour in figurative art. But then Matisse is exquisite on colour - Picasso is a bit of a dauber in comparison.

You're right about early Cubist Picasso though. His colour is at its best there. (Pink and Blue periods are a little fluffy perhaps). Braque is the real poet of Cubis. It is as you say. It is the earth colours and the texture.Braque is marvellous.

Coirí Filíochta said...

Recently, though I loathe to admit it, after a hiatus of seven years zero exposure to TV in the period since 2001 - several months ago this instrument of potential corruption, entertainment and education made a re-appearance in my physical writing environment.

Spending the last eight years intensively reading and latterly writing; the mental development of becoming functionally literate in a fuller sense where one's honest thought is authentically rendered on the page in print - was uninfluenced by television.

I can only claim to suppose this fact means that I as a maker of verbal garb, age 42 - influenced by TV for at least 30 years, from the age of five or so, that writing is the only area in life which television has had a neglible affect, until consciously getting back into the saddle so to speak, of being a passive participant in the worlds primary cultural activity.

I try and limit my exposure and in a very conscious manner, only allow in that which aids my education and that which is the trashiest entertainment, in order to experience two extremes, in the hope both will neuter and balance the televsion component of my make-up and leave no damaging trace. As high as the learning, as low as the wallowing in hollow, shallow reality shows and the odd drama, choosing on instinct and keeping a keen eye for any signs of addiction.

One of the programmes which had a great educational impact upon my learning, as on BBC 4, a history of art series in which Caravagio and the realists were the subject of the show.

I had read bits and pieces, but being wholly ignorant of visual art intellectually the full picture was backwash and not dilineated with clarity, until it being explained to me by the expert on telly and seeing how the use of perspective created a cinematic view for the audience.

Blake awaits for later, or perhaps not at all. Ivor Gurney was the subject of last weeks potw by Carol Rumens and a poster posted a critical remark made in a book on Gurney by Edmund Blunden, which i think may apply in some small way to Blake.

He said the critic can attempt to justify certaion characteristics in Gurneys writing as signs of innovative genius or as the "actions...of a skilful artist striving to create a wholly new kind of poetic utterance when, in fact, they are the fingerprints of his mental illness."

The things that puts me off Blake whose collected is pursued but not fully known, is the reward of learning his private language, of whic ciphered name represents what in the biblical narrative, would be along the lines of learning the Yeatsean system behind his philosophy of how human history all joins up.

This was something i at one time expended all my energies on doing.

It was the final essay of third year's drama module on Performance Theory, a module running parallel to one on semiotics and the deeper, crazee gear we had to imbibe. Stuff which sought to legitimately articualate conceptual performances, books on the stuff with all the associated argot and jargon of po-mo extremity.

I couldn't get my head round any of the performance theory. Semiotics was a doddle to the coursebooks for this caper. Herman Goffman's Deep Acting theory, in which we are all playing a role, and where human reality is contextualised as performance and acting.

other cross-disciplined research, anthropologists in the Congo Colin Turnball who spent his time with a pygmy tribe and experiencing the sacred Molomo, a communing with ancient spirits, and after 20 years in the field, slewing off his scientific disitance of detached opbserver and writing that we *must face up to this thing called spirit*

I couldn't make headway on the heavier proofs, so read the 1925 edition of The vision by Yeats, in which a lifetime of mystical esoteric practice and magical study is distilled into his tortuously comprehensive gobble dee gook of complexity underpinning the supernatural element in his verse. I came to the conclusion, even he would have had to crank his mind uop for several hours before he got the fluidity in his head to be able to handle all this astrologically based hoo ha.

But I found after reading it, on returning to the Performance Theory texts, they were jack and kill by comparison. A layer of obstruction had been peeled away by the eye-scrubbing i had got with space Bill.

Thanks very much George.