Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Picasso hits the wall

Picasso faces off against Manet, with disheartening results. Elsewhere the show actually pits him against Velázquez (below).

There's a very interesting, if deeply unhappy, article by Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times today regarding the gigantic show "Picasso and the Masters" currently up at the Grand Palais in Paris. The blockbuster, which has been drawing huge crowds, is the latest in a series of museum shows which have paired the great modernist off against his classical sources (an earlier one at the Prado was pondered by the New Yorker last year).

Of course what's evident in the Grand Palais is that despite the insistent naiveté of "revolutionary" twentieth-century opinion, Picasso does not hold up against the Old Masters (who, as Auden put it so simply, were never wrong). In my opinion, Picasso doesn't even always hold up against Matisse; still, his cult seems somehow impregnable, as if once the bourgeoisie had accepted the fact that Picasso had value, it had to cling to the idea that he was some kind of super-genius. Or does Picasso's inflated reputation simply reflect the fact that he and Matisse are the only modernists who could even possibly compete with the Old Masters (and therefore we must pretend they win)? This leads to an almost poignantly contradictory situation: museums, sensing that Picasso and the Old Masters are the biggest draws around, inevitably are pairing the two. And Picasso loses.

Or perhaps this is all just evidence that slowly (sometimes very slowly), history tends to overwhelm dogma. One hundred years from now, I think any comparison of Picasso and Velázquez will look ridiculous. But what does that tell us about modernism? What kind of revolution produces work that in the long run is not as good as the modes it replaced? And what does the gap between Picasso and the Old Masters say about artists of today, next to whom Picasso is an Old Master? No wonder Kimmelson sounds so sour.

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