Pablo has left the building - Michael Desmond


Picasso: The last decades
Art Gallery of NSW 9 November 2002 - 16 February 2003

There is no doubt that Picasso's genius dominates the art of the 20th century. His creative output altered the course of Western art from the moment that his brutal, proto-cubist Demoiselles d'Avignon was painted in 1907, when Picasso was only 26. Some critics consider that his influence began to diminish once he abandoned Cubism in the 1920s, while others believe that the decline occurred after Guernica, his heroic antiwar statement of 1937. It is generally accepted that his late works, those madeafter 1945, are not the equal of his earlier works. The current exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW, Picasso: The last decades, attempts to prove that the late works are misunderstood and underrated. In the words of Edmund Capon, Director of Gallery, 'encroaching old age failed to dim his assertive creativity'. The paintings on display suggest otherwise however.

Seeing Picasso at the Art Gallery of NSW was like seeing Elvis at Las Vegas. You knew he was great once, but what you were seeing in front of you was but a spectre, a parody of the youthful genius, now mummified in paint and
propped up by the viagra of fame. There's a whole lot of shakin' going on but not all of it is the music. There are moments of sheer joy in this exhibition, as you would expect. Picasso's late style is free and easy, as smooth as a peanut butter and fried banana sandwich but sometime the cholesterol content is too much. His Seated female nude of 1956 is clever visual pun, the disjointed visage is at once a play on the artist's earlier fracturing of space, a powerful graphic device to indicate movement and a mask to conceal emotion. There are some classic post Cubist images with sharp oppositions of tone and carefully balanced areas of colour and line, such as Seated woman. But these works are exceptional in this display for their rigor and economy. The majority of the paintings are intellectually flabby, a frame on which to hang the artist's considerable repertoire of accumulated styles and virtuoso techniques. Picasso's late paintings are fluid and sensuous and while disturbingly anecdotal, are generally unpretentious. His bewigged and cigar smoking Matador of 1970 is an amusing send up of machismo. But like many of the works in the show, it seems almost too effortless to be sincere. One feels that the great man had become overly reliant on his own facility, conjuring up works with the same reflexive ease that he did his famous light drawings before a camera crew. Like the late Brett Whitely, he came to believe in his own publicity and ceased to edit his output.

The conventional rhetoric is that his late paintings deal with age, impotency and fear of death. It may be that Picasso preferred escapism rather than confrontation and for that reason the painted fantasy scenes of mawkish relationships replete with nymphs and satyrs, odalisques and musketeers, artists and models, dirty old men and voluptuous women, are fully the equal of Norman Lindsay and ultimately as vapid. Picasso had always indulged his sentimental side but the works at the AGNSW seem to lack the alliance with political or humanitarian concerns that made his Blue and Rose periods (for example) so potent.

Indeed, there is some irony in the art historical characters that Picasso expunged from contemporary art when he invented Cubism retuning as the savage nudes and beautiful cavaliers that haunt his late works. A combination of vanity and respect inspired many of the late paintings in which this modern master reconsidered the old masters. Picasso pits himself against Delacroix, Velasquez, Ingres, El Greco and Manet in versions of these old master's best-known works. For all of the wit in Picasso's painterly fireworks, one longs to see the originals. However it is the ghosts of two 20th century artists that crowd in on this aging master's talent. The first is Henri Matisse whose rivalry with Picasso was recently documented in detail in the exhibition Picasso Matisse at the Tate Gallery earlier this year. This competition spurred Picasso to greater things, and the Gallery's Nude in a rocking chair and L'atelier de la Californie, both of 1956 reflect this influence. The second ghost is the youthful Picasso, conjured up by the many references to works and styles of the artist's early years.

There is no question that the man can paint, and it is a marvel to see the passage of his magic brush. Picasso applies a lick of paint with astonishing flourish, a line with bravado confidence and breathtaking aplomb. He quotes himself and pays out his own seriousness, well aware of the parody and able to maintain a strong sense of joyful play. The series of Studios 1956-57 are stunning. Be that as it may, the paintings assembled by the AGNSW are, in the main, over ripe and indulgent and again one longs for the original. Where is the cerebral appeal of the youthful Picasso in such paintings as La Portugaise 1914 with its the crisp lines and shockingly clever visual conceits that characterised the inventive early years. Regretfully not here.

Curiously, while the paintings looked weak, the prints in the exhibition appeared more interesting. Why? The mechanics of printmaking imposes a certain rigour, the intrinsic interest of the medium is there, the scale is in keeping with the subject matter and the essentially decorative approach of Picasso's later years is well suited to the medium. Picasso's prints are technically exciting. For example he invented a subtractive technique in his linocuts that use a single, successively excavated plate. Toros Vallauris 1958, a yellow and black linocut, is the stunning result. The focus on the later years begs the question of where is the marvellous output of ceramics, and for that matter, the sculptures, which constitute some of the best works of Picasso's late years. This exhibition clearly accepts an old fashioned hierarchy of painting first with other mediums lower on the totem pole. Whether the primacy of painting here is based on the need to center the exhibition on the gallery's own canvas, or a belief that big, glossy and definitely not 3d is what the market wants, Picasso: the last decades misses out on showing one of the most important keys to understanding Picasso's oeuvre, namely the protean nature of his art. Picasso was never committed to a single style, subject or medium and his willingness and indeed, dependency, on crossing media boundaries should be acknowledged.

The idea that Picasso's late oeuvre was underrated was tested in the mid eighties when the Centre Georges Pompidou mounted Le Dernier Picasso: 1953-1973 in 1988, so why do it now? It may be that the Art Gallery of NSW wanted to give their work an appropriate perspective or it might simply have been expediency. It is always difficult getting loans for a Picasso show, so much is his work in demand around the world. Late Picasso paintings, however, are the least in demand and the most available for loan to far off Australia. I feel that Picasso has not been served well in Australia. He is one of the best-known artists, but for all of his reputation, one of the least seen here. Works from the Marina Picasso collection toured Sydney and Melbourne in 1984 and the National Gallery took the small but superb Vollard Suite of prints on the road in 1998. There has also been a number of splendid individual works in various group shows such as Renoir to Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musee de l'Orongerie, Paris, but little chance to see works in strength and consider the evolution of this important artist.

It is a pity that the AGNSW did not try for something more ambitious.

The quality of the exhibition might be uneven, with occasional flashes of brilliance punctuating a parade of indulgence, but the very last work in the exhibition redeems late Picasso and brings the show into focus. This self-portrait in coloured crayons is reportedly the last work the 91-year-old artist made before his death some nine months later. Last portrait 1972 is stark, crude and disconcertingly direct in drawing out the fixed stare of a skull from the age-ravaged visage, exposing fear and resignation. Picasso's eyes radiate defiance, allowing the drawing to express great humanity if not humility. Picasso's last, terrible, description of death as the ultimate tragedy casts each work in the exhibition as an act of personal heroism. Pablo has finally left the building.

Michael Desmond