Back to Reviews


'Mo Picasso at MoMA
by Spencer Finch

Picasso & William S. Rubin, 1911

I had a painting teacher in art school whose métier was hyperbole. One of his strategies to encourage young artists was to position their student canvases in one of two camps: among Picasso and the "linears" back to the Florentines, or among Matisse and the "colorists" back to the Venetians. Although my own muddy pictures no doubt belonged to a third school, tracing back to the roadside artist in Céline's Journey to the End of the Night, who modeled the visages of passersby in "a steaming heap of cow flop," I found myself lumped by Professor Bunyan among Matisse, Titian, et al. Although I was old enough and sufficiently aware of my limitations to see through this bogus educational tactic, I must admit I thereafter spent more time musing over the works of Matisse, and admiring them. And I have, ever since, harbored a certain antipathy towards Picasso and the rest of those "linear guys."

When I first moved to New York, I worked down the street from MoMA, and I would regularly slip over at lunchtime for a bowl of chili and some Dada. Marcel Duchamp, whose name had been spoken only in whispers at my school (mostly at disciplinary committee meetings), elbowed out all others for the center of my aesthetic affections. I would occasionally backslide into the Matisse room and wallow in the comfort of that goldfish painting, or gaze in wonder at the radical piano lesson, or drink in the blue and green of the dance. On the way out, I would inevitably have to run the rather long gauntlet of Picasso before making a break for Dadaland" I do remember, once, stopping in front of a green painting and thinking that this guy really does know a thing or two about color. But mostly, I just dismissed Picasso as an overrated talent, a mythology, whose murky, angular pictures were simply too plentiful, too easy and, of course, too linear.

I acquired further prejudice against Picasso amid the discourse of five years ago concerning the relationship between art and society; that is, more specifically, the role of art in politics and vice versa. Although my own conversion came at the hands of Auden's "poetry makes nothing happen" argument, I recognized that both Duchamp and Matisse were in accord on this issue. But Picasso, who in some superficial way split the difference between the other two titans, made enormous and shameful claims for the social impact of his art. The whole guernica hullabaloo must be the most pompous insult to true patriotism in the entire history of art. That painting so egregiously did nothing (except, apparently, to send Basquiat on the road to ruin) that I immediately suspected Picasso's entire project. My ire was further heightened upon learning of Picasso's callous response to requests that he try to save the poet Max Jacob from the SS: "Little Max, he's an angel and will fly over their walls." (He didn't.) Never mind that I normally think an artist's personal behavior has nothing to do with the value of his or her art, I was starting to hate this guy and his art.

So it was with a steamer trunk-full of resentment and ill will that I pulled up at the recent exhibition of Picasso portraits at MoMA--which doesn't disqualify me in the least from the task at hand. On the contrary, although there has been enough ink expended on the subject to fill Barcelona harbor, I have never read a word of it. I spun through the doors on 53rd Street believing myself to be the ideal viewer--a tabula rasa with a bad attitude.

I was not disappointed. The rub of the entire exhibition is established at the entrance by William Rubin's quotation of Leonardo: "the artist always paints himself." What is most remarkable about this line is that so much stupidity could be crammed into five words. Who knows what Leonardo meant when he made this statement in a quattrocento context, but to repeat it in the context of 20th century portraiture is specious at best, blasphemous at worst.

Yes, the great achievement of this show is to resurrect the thoroughly discredited modernist myth that art is self-expression (rather than its antidote, or something else entirely), and that anything else (subject, content, even form) is incidental. Pardon my Victorian aesthetic, but I still think that art should have some connection to the world. And these pictures should tell us something about their subjects. As I moved through the exhibition gaining no such edification, I was reminded of the time Arthur Danto slammed the portraits of Richard Avedon by comparing one photograph unfavorably with an actual person whom he (Danto) had met (Isaiah Berlin, I think). This strikes me as a thoroughly appropriate critical method for this genre. Unfortunately it was unavailable to me, since none of the subjects is around, except Paloma, whom I considered trying to get an audience with (XXXOOO) just to prove a point.

But we can certainly compare our impressions of the subjects of Picasso's portraits with our impressions from other sources. Take the famous picture of Gertrude Stein, for example. Here is an image of a big woman with big hair. Big deal. (Of course the portrait is shrouded in the myth that Picasso worked on it for 40 days and 40 nights, scraped it away, and completed it in a matter of hours.) Anyway, compare this painting with Alice B. Toklas's beautiful little epigram: "Gertrude has said things tonight that will take her years to understand," which gives a sense of a great woman of irrepressible intelligence and ardor. As a portrait of a person, this zillion-dollar painting does not even come close to the conversational tidbit. Or, if it is not fair to compare across mediums, let's go across town to Velasquez's juan de pareja, arguably the greatest portrait in this town. It is a painting filled with humanity and brimming with personality (of the subject). A friend of mine once said that if Juan de Pareja could speak, he would say (mimicking Bart Simpson): "I am Juan de Pareja, who the HELL are you?" It is impossible to imagine any of Picasso's subjects ever saying anything at all. He silences them with his overpowering ego.

It's funny that it boils down to the simple fact that Picasso was mean. Really mean. Meaner than he was talented. And to be a great portraitist requires a healthy reservoir of sympathy. I will go out on a Kantian limb here and argue that if you treat your subject as a means of self-expression rather than as an end in him or herself, you fail. The aesthetic complexity formed by the relationship between the subject, the artist, and the viewer is central to the success of portraiture, and with Picasso we've got a seriously lopsided triangle. So lopsided, in fact, that it approaches a single line, striving to connect the artist and the viewer, which people like William Rubin interpret in their modernist myopia as evidence that Picasso "always paints himself." Which is to say, he always paints nothing.

Given Picasso's ignorance of his subjects and his devotion to himself, I was naturally most intrigued by the self portraits. One expects some sort of crisis in these paintings, a meltdown generated by the white heat of ruthless self-examination. It doesn't happen. Still, they are the best pictures in the show, with the possible exception of some of the early, rather sweet portraits, where Picasso's talent was unburdened by the destiny of genius. My favorite self-portrait is a small charcoal sketch from 1900, where you can see the old man in the young man--always a wild notion. The guy could really draw, but after 1900 it took more than a good hand to be a great artist. Picasso's chosen path to greatness is long and twisted, but nowhere is its error more evident than in the late self-portraits. These flabby and facile turds-on-the-wall are just another frightening argument for mandatory retirement of artists at age 40. As Proust said, "One lies all one's life long... above all to that stranger whose contempt would cause one most pain--oneself," and Picasso's project of portraiture collapses in this final heap of auto-mendacity.

Evelyn Waugh occasionally ended his letters by writing "Death to Picasso." His disdain for Picasso stemmed from a premodern anti-modernism--Waugh wanted a picture to convey a clear, universal meaning. Picasso's attack on pictorial order, which was indeed significant, called into question this myth of transparency in art. And, although Waugh's criticism of Picasso's "chaos and despair" sounds prissy and dated now, he made a very prescient observation: "You can not excuse Picasso by saying it is the message of the age and at the same time deny that the age is decadent." When one looks at Picasso's modernism now from the other end, it is indeed its decadence that is most striking. We replace old myths with new myths, and Pablo Picasso, the great "creator and destroyer" of our century, created myths that are as reprehensible as the ones he destroyed. And it is with a mix of schadenfreude and surprise that one watches those myths crumble, gradually revealing the remarkable mediocrity of Picasso's achievement.

Spencer Finch

Brooklyn, New York

1996

Back to Reviews