Monday, August 9, 2010

The Picasso Problem

Why do comparisons with other great artists always diminish Picasso?

My personal brief for Picasso, drastically summarized, would probably run something like this: Pablo Picasso was the most powerful and versatile artist of the twentieth century. And one of the most powerful and versatile artists of any century.

Yet every time I see a show which contrasts Picasso with another great painter, I leave with renewed respect for his competition, and the sense that Picasso himself has been subtly diminished. I've felt the effect so often, if fact, that I've begun to call it "The Picasso Problem."

Take the current show at the Clark Institute, "Picasso Looks at Degas." You can feel the show trying to pump up the artistic stock of Degas through its demonstration of Picasso's interest in, and admiration for, the older artist (their conflated self-portraits, both in the Clark show, at top).

The odd thing is that while the show certainly succeeds in that aim, it seems to do so at the cost of slightly deflating Picasso.

Although hold on a minute - perhaps "admiration" isn't quite the right word for what Picasso felt for Degas anyway - "respect for and fear of" may be more like it.

Because as the relentless torrent of scholarship since his death has shown, Picasso may have been the most powerful and versatile artist of the twentieth century, but he was hardly its most original. In fact, almost everything we think of when we think of Picasso - from cubism and collage (Braque and Gris) to Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and all the fractured women who came after (African tribal art) - has been demonstrated to have been derived from the work of other artists. Indeed, the joke is that painters learned to hide their latest innovations when Picasso dropped by for a visit. And he was certainly aware of his reputation as a thieving visual magpie. Not for nothing did he quip, "Good artists borrow, great artists steal." (And needless to say, Picasso considered himself a very great artist.)

Which isn't to say Picasso didn't make all these influences "his own." But the sheer welter of identified sources has begun to bring into question what precisely the phrase "his own" could possibly mean. Yes, he blew through Braque and all but engulfed Gris. But confronted by an equal (or perhaps greater) talent, Picasso seemed almost stymied - he spent his life playing a tense game of artistic chess with Matisse, for instance, and he repeatedly returned to Velázquez, either in imitation or parody, as if desperate to test himself, or crack some secret code.

We can feel the same frustrated obsession moving beneath the surface of the Clark show - and, like Picasso, we begin to be fascinated, too, by the mix of commanding draftsmanship and extreme subtlety that's evident in Degas. Only like Velázquez (if not Matisse), Degas seems to have gotten the better of Picasso in the end; his superb graphic design, the tossed-off quality of his dynamic visual space (a minor sample above) - these attributes Picasso absorbed, perhaps utterly. But when it came to the dry delicacy, the cool, but not unsympathetic, insights of Degas's inner eye - these were "lessons" Picasso could never learn. Over and over again, in "Picasso Looks at Degas," the Spaniard seems crude and groping, and the Frenchman poised and refined.

The key to Picasso's success, of course, lay in his sketching hand - he had a natural "line" which seemed to balance precisely the opposed qualities of savagery and grace. You can feel this transfixing tension even in his doodles and cartoons, and his "development" charts, through many phases and modes, his growing mastery of the same contradictory effect in the surfaces of his paintings.

But was Picasso's sensibility operating at the same level as his fingers? It would be hard to argue "yes" - there are just too many famous Picasso works which seem cruel or even boorish upon careful reflection.

And those are qualities you could never assign to Degas. Take a pairing of images that is central to the Clark show: Degas's In a Café (L'Absinthe) (left), and Picasso's obvious response, Portrait of Sebastian Juñer Vidal (below right). The two seem almost paradoxically intertwined, yet opposed - one clearly inspired the other, but as something like a riposte. The Degas, for instance, is recessed; the Picasso, confrontational. The Frenchman's palette is monochromatic and pale, and almost off-putting; meanwhile the Spaniard's may be monochrome too, but it's a bold, insistent monochrome, and its central visage seems to almost glow - the color all but grabs you.

But if you feel you have to peer into L'Absinthe to perceive even what the painting is about, once you do, the emptiness evident in the subject's eyes is devastating in its lack of melodrama. This woman is so lost she has no awareness of being lost, and she has absolutely no thought of her own salvation (much less any observer). She exists independently of her artistic effect. In contrast, the couple of Sebastian Juñer Vidal seem to be performing for a public; the viewer is all but implicit in the frame (that red flower in the woman's hair is meant just for us); their bored decadence is meant to impress.

Again and again, something like this dichotomy plays out in "Picasso Looks at Degas;" Picasso has one eye on the viewer, hoping to shock, or flatter, or perhaps engender flattery through shock. Meanwhile Degas has reached a level of transcription that seems to exist purely for itself; he seems almost jaded by his own virtuosity, and is merely interested in capturing as precisely as possible the contours of his obsessions.

It's true this reserve sometimes flickers with a faint, cold fire that's hard to define. In Woman with an Umbrella (Berthe Jeantaud) (at left), for instance, his subject radiates a cool sense of challenge that seems to flirt with contempt - yet her expression is of such subtlety that as we gaze more closely, her affect, like the Mona Lisa's, seems to destabilize. Is she wounded and vulnerable? Or calculating and defensive? All we can say of Berthe Jeantaud, in the end, is that she is in the deepest sense remote and untouched. Which we never feel of Picasso's women - instead, in fact, we often perceive his canvases as attacks on their models; the images all but bristle with displaced violence.

It's perhaps worth noting at this point that many speculate whether Degas was impotent; we know he remained a lifelong bachelor - but not the kind of "bachelor" who, like John Singer Sargent, painted naked boys in his spare time. No, Degas was almost poignantly obsessed with the female form; he stared and stared at women; the Clark show is chockablock, in fact, with his many ballerinas, bathers, and whores. These are depicted unsparingly - there's always a tang of ugliness to them (even his dancers are plain) - but not unsympathetically. In fact, one of his bordello images, "The Madame on Her Name-Day," (above right) approaches the tragic, with its bulldog of a madame, who is so touched by the affectionate embrace of those she has debased (and whose unappealing nudity is almost child-like in its brazenness).

Needless to say, an image like that one - imbued with a perspicacity worthy of Balzac - was utterly beyond Picasso, and he responded to "The Madame on Her Name-Day" with a bizarre series of prints near the end of his life that seem designed to mock Degas - and banish his haunting example - but which of course only succeed in conjuring precisely the opposite effect. The Clark tries to put as positive a spin on these images as possible; after all, as Picasso was about ninety when he completed them, it's likely he was impotent, too.

But it's hard to feel any identification with Degas in these works. In the one below, "Prostitutes Chatting, with Parrot, Celestina, and Portrait of Degas," the Frenchman has been reduced to his own image, and is barely noticeable, high up on the right. It's the women who fill the frame - if they are women; they seem more like sirens or harpies, bright-eyed monsters giggling in contempt for the helpless male who cannot attack their voluptuous fortress (in which some sort of erotic "id" has been sublimated), while the "celestina" (or madame) glares like a blackened gargoyle from what looks like a nun's wimple. It's a creepy picture, fraught with perverse frustration, and no doubt it matched Picasso's mood quite well - at the end of his life, at last he was undone, unmanned, reduced to a voyeur - a "picture" gazing at another picture.

But even if Degas was a kind of voyeur among his bordello models, was his art really about voyeurism? And was the Spaniard's attitude toward his models at all like the Frenchman's? I'd argue "no" in both cases. Indeed, as I gazed at these last prints, I felt as if Picasso were shrinking before my eyes, and I thought of the old joke about him being, like life, "nasty, brutish and short." Nothing in this final suite of prints comes close to "The Madame on her Name-Day" - and frankly, together they feel more like a sneer at, rather than a tribute to, their supposed inspiration. Or perhaps they feel more like a desperate attempt at reductionism - for if Degas attempted to conjure from the transactions of sex the means of art, then Picasso seems determined to hammer the one back into the other. And perhaps that is what's at the heart of "the Picasso problem."