I ended Part 1 by suggesting that in his ceramics Picasso was moving toward simplicity and timelessness. This is a side of Picasso not sufficiently appreciated: one who admires the qualities of Greek and Egyptian art and takes joy in emulating it, making it a part of his own oeuvre. Not a mere nod to the past, but a genuine recognition that the past remains with us.
The public has a limited tolerance for complexity, and tends to fixate on certain facets of an artist’s work to the exclusion of others. Some of what’s good about Picasso may be hidden in plain sight because it fails to jibe with our expectations, and so goes unnoticed. If our stereotype of Picasso is that of the cubist, distortionist, and painter of exotic nudes, viewing his ceramics and linocuts reveals a quite different picture:
The accompanying music forms a counterpoint both fitting and ironical. “Aspri Mera,” sung by Greek-French chanteuse Nana Mouskouri, means literally “white day,” and here signifies an idealized day when everything is put right. The singer, who could easily be one of Picasso’s mistresses, says in part:
I will water with a salty tear
the weather, bitter summers
I learned to be close to you
The dawn gave to the sky
pigeons without life
I will come back as a sad Madonna
Goodbye, don’t cry for the sorrow…
As if by magic, pigeons and Madonnas appear on cue! (Translation adapted from one by Korina found here.) There is perhaps some danger in sentimentalizing Picasso, but one should view this slideshow as chipping away at ideas about him which have become fossilized, set in stone. Some people mistake his ceramics for the merely decorative, not recognizing that their simplicity is a profound form of artistic statement, for as the great Sri Chinmoy remarks: “Simplicity is an advanced course.”
This earthenware plate with its near-smiling face introduces us to Picasso’s “happy boy” icon — a big, round moon-face with minimal features, placid and showing no signs of modern anxiety or angst. Some of that simplicity-inspired-by-antiquity is also visible in a painting from 1946:
Picasso could communicate with great clarity and directness, as in this red clay study from 1964 reflecting Egyptian influence. It’s an immensely tactile portrait — as our eyes travel over it, we can almost feel the ridges:
Picasso knew everything that was happening in modern art. As a colorist and stylist, he could easily make Chagall or Matisse his own. Certainly one is reminded of them in this lovely and poignant piece from 1948, Claude in the Arms of His Mother, which rivals in expressiveness any Madonna and child done by the old masters:
At times, Picasso could be obsessed with form, line, and colour to the exclusion of empathy for his subjects; but not so with the above picture, which shows tremendous love.
Another domestically-inspired work hails from 1954:
It’s not as tender, but is wonderful in its form and looks almost like a still from an animated film. (The Picasso Summer, a 1969 film based on a story by Ray Bradbury, does include an animated sequence where figures from Guernica come to life.) The more sombre tone of Claude Drawing reflects the fact that Françoise had left Picasso by this time and taken the children with her.
Picasso painted some of his most traditionally beautiful portraits of women back in his neoclassical period, which came after his first major excursion into cubism:
It may be said without fear of contradiction that no one could make a bust of a woman like Picasso (but see feminist implications further down). After such a feast of beauty which does not challenge, we may be shocked to view his less representational works, where he interpolates his subjects through cubism, abstract sculptural forms, and psychological profiles. Despite its passionate title, Female Nude (I Love Eva) takes more work on the viewer’s part to discern the emotion. I know someone who swears he can spot three presidents:
This next one might be billed as Pig Wearing a Suit of Green Armour:
Another might be called Portrait of a Hatstand with Stained Glass Attachments, and has a bit of a Doctor Who feel to it (“Are you my mummy?”):
There’s something Moorish in this painting from 1952. No, not the Spanish Moors, but Henry Moore:
Picasso stretches reality and exaggerates certain features (here the long neck, hair, and act of curving the body), distorting the form to better communicate the essence. Another painting plays with the trope of the woman who’s mysterious and sphinxlike — by turning Jacqueline Roque into something Egyptian, carved in stone:
There’s an episode of Northern Exposure in which a hair technician describes her expert machinations as “shovering and balloonifying.” That’s certainly what Picasso does in the example below, and there are others where the models are suspended in air like floats from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade:
If this ode to modern inflation is cheerful, his Weeping Woman series evokes a universal archetype of suffering, but is also personal to Dora Maar:
Picasso said, “For me she’s the weeping woman. For years I’ve painted her in tortured forms, not through sadism, and not with pleasure, either; just obeying a vision that forced itself on me. It was the deep reality, not the superficial one… Dora, for me, was always a weeping woman… And it’s important, because women are suffering machines.”
Nevertheless, like most male artists of the twentieth century, Picasso used the female body as raw material for his visions of what art could be. The results were not always complimentary or respectful by today’s standards. This clip from the 1958 film The Horse’s Mouth gives something of the prevailing attitudes towards artists and models at the time. Look for Michael Gough as a sculptor obsessed with evoking “mother earth surrounded by her dead,” while the poor model shivers and cramps:
I will grant you that in order to pronounce Picasso spiritual one has to ignore a lot and put up with a lot. He never seemed to question the inherited setup whereby a woman’s function was to pose for male artists. Art historian and feminist Griselda Pollock addresses this issue pointedly in Art of the Western World, noting that “male avant-garde artists have staked their claim as ambitious modernists on the bodies of women.” For further discussion, see her “Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity”.
It would be easy to subject Picasso the man to a variety of political and spiritual tests — some of which he might fail. But this doesn’t negate what’s spiritual in his work, to be discovered through a careful process of selection. Much that the critics herald may be safely rejected in seeking after the spiritual Picasso.
I have tracked this elusive beast as far as I safely could on foot, and having no motored vehicle, must leave it to the reader to proceed further, according to what he or she may consider prudent. Yet our journey is not quite done. In Part 3, I’ll ponder what we’ve learned and discuss Picasso’s (sometimes disputed) place in modernism. Naturally, there’ll be more pictures, photos, videos, and poetry. I hope you’ll enjoy hearing Françoise Gilot tell the story of how Picasso rescued a baby owl and nursed it back to health, and how she fed it mice from the publisher’s downstairs.
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Note: A limited number of digital reproductions of Picasso’s works are included here for educational purposes and to promote awareness of his contributions as an artist. Some or all such works may be copyright Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Special thanks to the Masterworks Fine Art Gallery of Oakland Hills, California, which has many exquisite Picasso ceramics and linocuts for sale.