On ViewGagosian Gallery
April 14 – July 15, 2011
It’s hard to say something new about Picasso, but the current show at Gagosian on West 21st Street demonstrates that it is not impossible to experience something new about him. Here we have the chance to see 20 or 30 masterpieces not merely from a single period, but on a particular theme: portraits of Picasso’s mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter and a few of their daughter, Maya. Walter was a robust Nordic type with a blonde bob; she so perfectly exemplified the kind of Easter Island profile and strong, shouldery body that Picasso painted even before he met her, that he might not have discovered her as much as recognized her. In this period, ranging from 1927 to 1940, he seems to have left behind any regime or program and settled into a masterful investigation of volume and color; there are traces of periods past, of Cubism, of course, in his sense of time and movement, in the pinkish tint of Marie-Thérèse’s skin that recalls his Rose Period, and in his monumental rendering of her noble wedge-shaped nose that owes as much to African and Oceanic art as to its own merits. There is a mature, relaxed quality to his investigations. His interiors are filled with Mediterranean light; you can almost smell it. There is no sense of melancholy; what’s to be “blue” about? Picasso is a self-satisfied middle-aged man, famous, revered, at the height of his powers, with a teenaged mistress, whom he purportedly wooed by showing her a monograph about himself.
L’Amour Fou, being so biographical a show, invites the kind of speculation that, perhaps, art historians would prefer to leave alone, but we can’t help it. Should the fact that an artist was something of a monster have any bearing on what we think of his work? Well, yes and no. Knowing that Caravaggio had a hunger for pubescent boys precisely like the one he depicts in his “David and Goliath”—that he himself may have been the model for the head of the giant that David holds so casually aloft—brings a psychological slant to the work that it would not otherwise have had. Our knowledge of Francis Bacon’s subject and lover, George Dyer, while not at all essential to our appreciation of his work, seems equally important to a full understanding of it. That Picasso’s relationships with women were central to his work is an inescapable subtext to all these pieces. He renders Marie-Thérèse as more classically beautiful than she appeared in photos, and there’s no doubt that he loved her, at least for a while. But the title of the show seems to me more catchy than true (unless it refers to Marie-Thérèse’s feelings for Picasso), for I don’t believe that Picasso ever lost his head over a woman. He was too canny an artist, and too self-serving a man. His serial muses were useful to him only as long as they gave him inspiration; the moment he grew bored, he moved on. Marie-Thérèse was only 17 when they met and it is almost a truism that she “fueled his imagination with a luminous dream of youth,” as the blurb to the show states; by the same token, she could retain her interest in him only while she was still a girl. In painting after painting her blue eyes stare out of a creamy face, her yellow hair often as not crowned with a wreath. Yet, unfortunately, knowing far too much about Picasso’s life and unable to take it back, to look at these works is not merely to dwell in the spirit of bare-breasted Hebe, but to think of how he bent this young woman to his purposes. And just as he contorted her lithe young body, distorting and twisting her image as part of his visual experiment, he did the same to her life, which never seemed to move beyond his devastating influence even after he abandoned her. If she was sunlight and youth to him, he fed on both and left her with neither. Four years after Picasso’s death, she hanged herself.
One of the many extraordinary things about this show is that there are almost no minor works; each canvas is as strong and assured as the last. Picasso possessed not merely a talent for painting and a vision for a new way to look at art, but an incredible conviction about himself and what he was doing; he never seems to waver, and his certainty is one of the things about him that we recognize as “great.” This leads us, in a circular fashion, back to biography, for it seems that Picasso never for a moment wavered in his personal life either; nor do I think there is much evidence that he felt much guilt after the fact about anything he did. This provokes a quandary, or a hypothesis: certainty may not be absolutely necessary to greatness, but badness just may be necessary to certainty.