The Picasso Century

The Picasso Century is Picasso's second blockbuster in the National Gallery of Victoria's Winter Masterpieces series. The scope of the exhibition's historical claim – that the Spaniard's influence ripples irrepressibly through most of twentieth-century art, even decades after his death and across Europe, if not the globe – is pursued to mixed effect.

The National Gallery of Victoria’s Winter Masterpieces series has been running since 2004. When looking at the full list of these exhibitions, it is striking how few feature artists who had not already made their reputations by 1939. Thus far, the only two to do so amongst the total eighteen were Guggenheim Collection: 1940s to Now, mounted in 2007, and Masterworks from MoMA, in 2018. Additionally, The Picasso Century grants the Spaniard a double-dip, being preceded in 2006 by Picasso: Love and War 1935–1945; and with the news that the next one focuses on Pierre Bonnard, this strange conservatism seems destined to continue. Noting that each exhibition is rumoured to provide enough profit to underwrite the rest of the Gallery’s annual exhibition calendar, it posits, amongst others, the very real question of what motives drive these selections. 

For sheer spectacle, The Picasso Century does indeed tick the blockbuster boxes. It is voluminous, featuring over eighty works by Pablo alongside one-hundred-plus works by more than fifty of his contemporaries. There is also a richly illustrated catalogue. The principal essay is by the Centre Pompidou’s Deputy Director Didier Ottinger, and directly addresses the title of the exhibition, arguing that Picasso’s importance was such that his influence reverberated through much of twentieth-century modern art. Herein lie more difficulties with The Picasso Century as it attempts to place relevant work by other artists adjacent to Picasso’s examples. In many places it succeeds; in many, it does not. 

The section that does this most successfully is the cubist realm where Picasso and Georges Braque pushed and inspired each other relentlessly as “two mountaineers chained together.” Importantly, this segment also puts the spotlight on a handful of women artists from the period such as Suzanne Duchamp and María Blanchard, whose wonderful Girl with a hoop, 1917, is a minor revelation. Picasso, not be outdone, pushed his ideas further into the third dimension, as the fascinating little sculpture Bottle of Bass beer, glass and newspaper, 1914, attests, an object which triggers thoughts of the Russian Vladimir Tatlin whose own constructions were directly influenced by his visits to Picasso’s studio in 1914. The Centre Pompidou owns a striking portrait of Tatlin by Natalia Goncharova, so it is strange that the curators chose to display two unrelated peasant pictures by her rather than this portrait. That said, the inclusion of Goncharova’s surging Abstract forms, brown and green, 1913–14, perfectly encapsulates the premise of Picasso’s influence. Following World War I, the “return to order” ideals put an end to many artists’ pursuits of esoteric, personalised art and in Picasso’s case, this is signalled perfectly by the elegant Portrait of Olga in an armchair, 1918, and the monumental drawing The spring, 1921. 

From the 1920s onwards, The Picasso Century starts to reveal a further problem for exhibitions like this which attempt to illustrate such an ambitious argument. Due to expediency, blockbusters are usually drawn from a limited number of sources, and The Picasso Century relies predominantly on the Centre Pompidou, Musée Picasso-Paris, and the National Gallery of Victoria. This means that the relevance of the actual works chosen is governed by what lies in each institution’s collection. This dilemma gets more pronounced with the arrival of surrealism. In spite of the André Breton’s attempts to include him within their ranks, Picasso remained at arm’s length; and with his provocative “teeth, bathers, and bones” series painted in the late 1920s, he again demonstrated his acute individuality. The problem here is that the exhibition’s inclusion of unrelated works by Max Ernst, Rita Kernn-Larsen, René Magritte and Dorothea Tanning (whose haunting Family portrait dates to 1954!) only confuse as the viewer struggles to find any trace of Picasso within them. This is not to say it isn’t a joy to see these paintings; it is just that the question remains of “Do they really support the exhibition’s premise?”

Alberto Giacometti’s bronze Man and Woman, 1928–29, and Willem de Kooning’s Woman, c.1952, are powerful inclusions, testament to each artist’s tangled thoughts regarding women and sex; but they also highlight another elephant in the room, namely Picasso’s well-documented misogyny. It is quite astounding that the exhibition does not address this issue. Instead, bald quotes from him appear on the didactic panels such as “Women are machines of suffering … Too bad for her.” Enough of the rutting bull seducing young virgins! Picasso, it is evident, was terrified of female power, so one hopes – really hopes – that Woman pissing, 1965, painted when he was eighty-three years old and filled with failing-libido hysteria, was included as curatorial subterfuge rather than the catalogue’s less-than-believable argument that the image was solely an homage to Rembrandt.

If the exhibition had been titled Picasso and his peers, then the simple pleasure of seeing such a variety of works would be welcome. By making the grandiose claims that support The Picasso Century, it is inevitable that the curators fall short and leave much to be resolved.

Melbourne Winter Masterpieces: The Picasso Century
10 June – 9 October 2022
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

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