Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Late Picasso

A friend gave me the book Late Picasso: Paintings, Sculpture, Drawings, Prints 1953-1972, and I’ve been pouring over it for a couple of weeks, going back to look again and again at the drawings and paintings.

The book was a catalog for a show at the Tate Museum in London covering his work during the last two decades of his life. Unfortunately, lists it as out of print and unavailable.  They do, however, list Picasso: The Late Drawings
  -- used, two copies available, and  Picasso at Ninety – one new at $178.80 and 11 used from $17.99 and up, and two other books on his late work.

Critics universally damned Picasso’s late works. The conventional wisdom was that he just repeated himself, that he lost his touch – literally, meaning that he could no longer make those sure and delicate strokes for which he was famous – and that he had degenerated into a dirty old man obsessed with sex whose so-called erotic drawings and paintings were more like bad pornography.

The contributors to this book dispute those claims, and their arguments make a lot of sense.

Picasso certainly did repeat himself. The theme of the artist in his studio or the artist and his model was virtually the only thing he painted for the last 20 years of his life, albeit in thousands of variations. But painting variations on a theme is a far different thing than repeating oneself. In his countless variations he investigated and experimented with forms, shapes and meanings. He didn’t just paint the artist and his model, but he made visual commentary on the complex relationship between the two, and he investigated in its myriad forms the nature of art and reality. What is real and what is illusion? Does the artist make the art or does the art make the artist? And in the process he paid homage to, criticized and competed with the artists he most admired: Velasquez, Rembrandt, Goya, Manet, Matisse. The man had a giant ego. He was convinced he was the greatest artist in the world and he set out to methodically outdo all of the other greats by one-upping their own greatest works.

And did he lose his touch? The contributors to this book say he purposely tried to hide his facile touch. He drew badly in order to force the viewer to look deeper. Many other artists had done the same thing to various degrees, most notably, perhaps, Matisse. Even Picasso in his earlier works had striven for a cruder and more childlike look, but the smoothness, delicacy and sureness of his stroke showed through.  In these later works he succeeded in obliterating facile beauty. But to what effect? I guess that’s up to the viewer to decide.  Personally, I do not love every picture in this book, but I like a hell of a lot more than I dislike.

The cover illustration is a very crude looking painting of a woman’s face. She has a gargantuan nose that cannot in any way be considered attractive, and the odd black shape under her nose looks slap-dash at best, as if Picasso didn’t care what it looked like. But the whole thing is very compelling, and I don’t think it would have been if the drawing had been “prettier.”  And by the way, the cover illustration is not a complete painting; it is the face cropped from a full-figure painting called “Woman Pissing,” which is a variation on Rembrandt’s “Woman Bathing." The crude drawing matches the crudity of the subject and title. Love it or hate it, there is harsh realism here that reflects well on Rembrandt , whose own brand of realism was, for his day, as dark and unflattering as Picasso’s.

Picasso depicted graphic and uncompromising sexuality in many of his late drawings and paintings. And they were not pretty. They were humorous in a biting way, often making fun of men and their sometimes inadequate and clumsy attempts at love. The man in these drawings and paintings is typically Picasso himself, and the humor is at his own expense. They’re like drawings made on bathroom walls by naughty boys, graphic but never really sexy, with sophisticated humor and often with multiple meanings. Some critics said he had denigrated into a dirty old man drawing dirty pictures because he had become impotent. In fact, he was in his art courageously telling the world that yes, he was a dirty old man who could no longer perform. And in these drawings sex was a metaphor for art. The two were synonymous for Picasso.

Overall these late works may not be as good as some of his earlier works. There was certainly no “Guernica” among these works nothing so revolutionary as “Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.”  But what do you expect of an artist in his 70s and 80s who had already accomplished more than any other artist in history?  He worked right up to his death at 91 and never ceased to be creative and provocative.

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