When we come into contact with a great figure in the world of art we’re bound to be confronted with the great questions.
- What is art?
- What is culture & what is its relationship to citizenship & society?
- How should one assemble great works to best advantage?
- And what—if anything—can criticism offer?
This is perhaps more applicable to Pablo Picasso than any other artist: because of his lengthy career, his protean nature, reinventing himself over and over, and his centrality in the art world over the past century.
I am pondering such questions after seeing the preview at the Art Gallery of Ontario of Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris. I don’t believe we’re expected to decode the lost mysteries of art, even if that’s sometimes the way criticism is presented, as for example in Woody Allen’s recent Midnight in Paris.
Whether you laugh or not, I hope the lesson is clear:
- that criticism is not just an activity but an industry (ie the pompous guy who gives the first opinion about the painting: completely wrong by the way), and at times a big business
- that the truth –especially the relationship between a life and works of art—is an elusive mystery
- that art itself is largely independent of such issues (which may be one of the conclusions Woody Allen wanted to show, in a film that casts any notion of a “golden age” in a most ironic light)
This new Picasso show moves me to think of a series of questions at the same time. I saw Picasso and Man at the Art Gallery of Toronto (as AGO was then called) in 1964, as a child. I can’t help thinking about a few inter-connected issues:
- In 1964 Picasso was still alive (75 years old), sufficiently current to be provocative if not revolutionary
- 48 years later Picasso has become something of a classic
- 48 years before Picasso and ManI? Surrealism & dada had not yet reared their heads, let alone the abstract style of a Jackson Pollock (just four years old in 1916).
- One of the great lessons of this glorious sprawling show is to see how styles change from generation to generation, and to be humbled by how much can change in a lifetime.
In his welcoming message, Matthew Teitelbaum spoke to the connection between the two shows, hinting at the changing role of the AGO, and a vision for the future. We heard of a program whereby children would be given the free audio guide for shows: a forward-thinking idea. I am reminded of the way the Canadian Opera Company –arguably the ne plus ultra of arts marketing in this country, if not on the continent– has built its audience and subscription base through its long-time policy to bring opera to children & students.
Part of the enjoyment of eating is in imagining how to recreate the meal; similarly as I consumed decades of Picasso, I marvelled at how the meal was assembled. We’re told that art was like a diary for Picasso, so that his art is his story. The organizing principle –the logic of chronology—while deceptively simple, conflates painter and painting. But when we consider the complex issues one would otherwise encounter –if for instance, we organized the work around the various “isms” or movements whereby the art might be organized—the mind reels at the prospect, particularly considering how daunting such a task might be. In other words, I’m thankful that the exhibition seems to be as amenable to analysis & criticism for those who work that way, or simply as a panorama of an artist’s life. And recalling the clip from Woody Allen’s film, it’s as though we’re free to have it any way we wish ( with as much or as little analysis as we want).
Moving from room to room, we stride with seven-league boots from decade to decade, from era to era, and implicitly, from movement to movement. We detect the successful flavours of expressionism, cubism, surrealism, abstraction. We observe another current, namely the political surge in the 1930s, in a series of paintings of searing power. For me one of the climaxes (among several) was not a painting at all, but a series of photos by Dora Maar, Picasso’s current muse/mistress, showing the creation of Guernica.
I admit, my thinking has recently been influenced by what I’ve seen/heard:
- Stewart Goodyear’s upcoming marathon of Beethoven piano sonatas (and my own miniature survey of those same sonatas on my own piano at home) has me looking at patterns in the complete cycle of sonatas.
- The collaboration of Talisker Players & Groundling Theatre in Muse of Fire presented several musical approaches to Shakespeare, encouraging a synthetic view across multiple plays. Jane Archibald’s Juno award winning CD of Haydn arias also had me thinking about the composer –whom i don’t pretend to know very well– across decades.
- The experiences I’ve had recently looking at attempts to build culture using theatre in small towns (Barrie, Richmond Hill and Scarborough) has me thinking about AGO as part of a cultural project, particularly considering the way Teitelbaum spoke (looking back at the Toronto of 1964, when we were smaller & less sophisticated: like me come to think of it)
Just as one experiences the emergence of new stylistic traits playing one sonata after another in historical order, so too when going from room to room in the Picasso show (also organized chronologically), one sees the development of new styles and tendencies. And when one surveys one of the truly great artists one can’t help thinking about the pure essence that is “Picasso” (or Beethoven or Shakespeare or Haydn), even if in truth their work changed over the course of their life. Perhaps it’s a colossal fantasy to attempt to abstract a creator into one image when they are really the sum of all their diverse creations; but such grandiose fantasies are given some momentum in the presence of exhibitions such as this one.
The excitement in the city’s cultural meeting place is part and parcel of a transformation of that place into something transcendental. While the show is surely an exhibit of the works of Picasso in several media, in a curious way it’s also just a new look at the gallery itself. I’ve never liked the space so much as now, as it happily holds such wonderful works. There’s an especially beautiful composition in one of the rooms, comprised of bronzes (for example “Head of a woman” 1931) in front of paintings (a series of 1931 figures on the seashore). There was no place in the room that wasn’t stunning, no matter which direction you looked. How astonishing. I couldn’t move, until I realized I couldn’t stand still.
I’m thinking this is part of a larger project, a programming choice something like the symphonies or operas or plays selected by performing arts companies in the search for an audience and the creation of an ongoing meeting place to renew our artistic dialogue. With Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris, as with the earlier Marc Chagall show and the upcoming exhibit of Frida Kahlo / Diego Rivera, AGO are giving us good reasons to become members: to continue that conversation.
Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris opens May 1st at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and runs until August 26th.