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Spain & Picasso.

Pablo Picasso should be looming large just now. In theory, the apparently fortuitous overlapping of two of this season's major exhibitions, "Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso: Time, Truth, and History" at the Guggenheim and "Picasso and American Art" at the Whitney ought to focus our attention on the artist whose name is synonymous with modern art. (1) In theory, these concurrent shows should make us consider Picasso as a bridge between past and present, between the Old World and the New. We should be thinking of him as both the heir to a tradition of Spanish painting that begins in the late sixteenth century and as an omnipotent father figure for generations of artists on this side of the Atlantic. I say "in theory" because, while both of these ambitious exhibitions offer abundant pleasures, a good deal of instruction, and even some surprises, neither one fully lives up to its promise. Many of the questions they raise about Picasso's relation to his ancestors and his descendants remain unanswered, while larger issues about the nature of national style and the role of influence itself remain unresolved.

Of course, the fact that "Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso: Time, Truth, and History" is an effort of the Guggenheim suggests a need for guarded expectations. So does the show's subtitle, cribbed from a little allegorical painting by Francisco de Goya (c. 1797-1800, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Symbolizing "time, truth, and history" provided Goya with an excuse to paint nudes; as a declaration of curatorial intentions, the phrase serves mainly to alert us to a high probability of intellectual pretense at the Guggenheim, an expectation completely fulfilled by the wall texts and supporting material, which also get high marks for condescension and redundancy. "Unlike other overviews that display paintings in a strictly chronological order," we are told, this show is
 presented in fifteen distinct sections, each
 based on a theme running through the past five
 centuries of Spanish culture. These thematic
 axes reveal the connections and affinities between
 the old masters and the modern era
 through a series of carefully chosen, content-based
 dusters, each based on a theme running
 through the past five centuries of Spanish culture.
 Accordingly, within each section of the
 exhibitions works from different periods appear
 side by side, offering often radical juxtapositions
 that cut across time to reveal the
 overwhelming coherence of the Spanish
 tradition.


The fifteen distinct sections are titled--please bear with me--Monks, Bodegones, Landscapes of Fire/Blood and Sand, The Domestic World, Women in Public, Weeping Women, Virgins and Mothers, Nudes, Childhood, Monstruos, Knights and Ghosts, Ladies, Crucifixions, The Fallen, and Flyers. Yet these categories, far from illuminating the themes "running through the past five centuries of Spanish culture," come across, at best, as attempts to impose some kind of justification on a random selection of works or, at worst, as efforts to reduce the complex tradition of Spanish painting to easily digested, visual "sound-bytes." The kindest interpretation is that the curators, Carmen Gimenez and Francisco Calvo Serraller, assembled as many of their favorite works as space, budget, and availability permitted and then concocted a "narrative" to explain their choices.

The cumulative effect is like that staple of introductory art history courses, the "compare and contrast" slide exam. Claudio Coello painted a tearstained head of a penitent Magdalen around 1665-1670 and Picasso painted an agonized head of a weeping woman in 1937. Francisco de Zurbaran painted an Agnus Dei as a bound lamb, destined for the butcher's shop, around 1636-1640, Francisco de Goya painted a couple of pitifully dead hares and a dead turkey, both about 1808-1812, Picasso painted a dead rooster with his feet bound in 1947 and--wait for it--a still life with three sheep's skulls in 1939. And so on. The exhibition's most enlightening comparison remains implied rather than illustrated. The full-length portrait, Eugenia Martinez Vallejo, Known as "La Monstrua," Nude (c. 1680, Prado, Madrid) by Juan Carreno de Miranda, a poignant image of an obese female child, ineffectively disguised as a classical deity, could be the source of all of the Colombian painter Fernando Botero's grotesque nudes, but Botero is absent; while the show includes work by expatriate Spanish-born modernists, those from the former Spanish colonies are beyond its scope.

The show makes a good case for the continuity of at least one well-defined characteristic of Spanish painting: a tradition of scrupulous observation and virtuoso paint handling that begins with the sleek surfaces and meticulous detail of seventeenth-century Spanish still-life painting and persists, mutating along the way, to reemerge in Zurbaran's miraculously still devotional paintings, Velazquez's incisive portraits, and Goya's penetrating images. If we follow another path, this tradition can be also seen as evolving into Salvador Dali's obsessively finished, creepy "hand-painted dream postcards from the unconscious," or, if we take another route, into Joan Miro's tense abstractions of the 1920s, with their ravishing surfaces and fragile drawing. These connections are clear, but it's more difficult to decide what is revealed by the association of Picasso's tight, neo-classical portrait of his wife, Olga in an Armchair (1917, Musee National Picasso, Paris) with Juan Gris's gathering of fragmented planes, Seated Woman (1917, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid). The point seems to be that two expatriate Spanish painters approached similar subjects in different ways at the same time, one remaining faithful to a radical approach invented by the other, while the inventor, apparently having lost interest in his own innovations, revisited the academic tradition of his early training, with a twist.

The good news is that "Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso" is chock-full of terrific pictures, many of them celebrated works by the most revered artists of the tradition. There are also equally fine, less familiar efforts by well-known painters, and splendid pictures by little-known figures whom we would do well to remember. We can revel in the opportunity to see, for example, two dazzling El Grecos from opposite ends of his career in close proximity: the weirdly colored Adoration of the Name of Jesus (c. 1577-1580, El Escorial) with its elastic spaces and dizzying shifts of scale, and the Metropolitan's supercharged Vision of Saint John (c. 1608-1614), with its frieze of agile nudes and its overscaled ecstatic saint, arms raised to the sky. (They're included, slightly improbably, as "Landscapes of Fire/Blood and Sand.") Among a notable selection of Velazquez's portraits, there's his compassionate, blunt depiction of the court dwarf Don Sebastian de Morra (c. 1643-1644, Prado, Madrid), his elegant green suit, rose-colored cloak, and lace trimmings at odds with his ungraceful pose, short legs straight out in front, and his truculent, introspective expression. The Caravaggesque painter Jose de Ribera, also known as "Lo Spagnoletto"--"the little Spanish guy"--who abandoned Spain for Naples, is well represented by powerful images of nude saints and figures from mythology, usually in extremis.

Goya's brutal, beautiful Still Life with Sheep's Head (c. 1808-1812, Louvre, Paris) is another high point, at once a memento mori and a stunning orchestration of pearly bone, nacreous fat, and ruddy flesh. Goya's entire career is well documented, in fact, by a selection that ranges from such early rococo works as the charming Boy on a Ram (c. 1786-1787, Art Institute of Chicago), to such tough-minded later paintings as the vigorously painted pair of beauties, sheltering under a steeply angled parasol, The Young Women (The Letter) (after 1812, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille); these major canvases are complemented by smaller, no less potent works that complete the chronology and widen the spectrum of Goya's subject matter.

Closer to the present, there are some rigorous, economical, unfamiliar Picasso still lifes from 1908 and 1943, from the Hermitage and a private collection respectively, rock-solid images that make the contrast between a bottle and a bowl or a skull and a pitcher appear to be the most eloquent and elemental of oppositions. Most surprising, perhaps, is a lean, pared-down painting by the Bodegones master, Juan Sanchez Cotan, Still Life with Cardoon and Parsnips, from the Museo de Bellas Artes, Granada. There's very tittle to describe: a rectangular black void, framed by a gray stone ledge that supports a sensually curved cardoon--like a truncated, pinkish, faintly hairy bunch of celery--and a pile of parsnips whose colors suggest Cubism around 1911. The orchestration of tones, textures, and subtle non-colors is so suggestive, rich, and--there's no other word for it--abstract, that it's hard to remember that the picture was painted about 1604; a little triangle of black space, trapped between the corner of the ledge and the cardoon, is more eloquent than almost anything in a modern Metaphysical still life from the first quarter of the twentieth century.

Ignore the categories and the pretentious wall texts, and "Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso" is a delight. The larger question of whether seeing Picasso in this context makes him appear irreducibly Spanish is more difficult to address. No one denies that there are strong visual and conceptual threads running through the history of Spanish art, nor does anyone dispute that Picasso was profoundly interested in the past, including his Spanish heritage, as a source to learn from, something to measure himself against, and something to challenge. The Guggenheim show convincingly underscores the affinities between the firm modeling of the works of, say, Sanchez Cotan and Picasso's most articulate renderings of form--works like that 1908 still life with the bottle and bowl or the 1917 portrait of Olga. More problematic is the contention that Picasso's reprisals of images from El Greco and Velazquez, late in his career, were demonstrations of a deep-seated connection with the tradition of Spanish art. It would be easier to support this view with examples from Picasso's early history, given the well-documented resonance of El Greco's Burial of Count Orgaz, in his pre-Cubist works or the echoes of fourth century B.C. Iberian sculpture in the paintings preceding flailbore Cubism. But the unequivocally French stylist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec also had a notable effect on Picasso's early work, while African sculpture was a crucial ingredient in the evolution of Cubist form.

The exhibition's examples of Picasso's later confrontations with Velazquez's Las Meninas or El Greco's be-rafted dignitaries are hard to read as anything but Oedipal declarations of ego; they announce themselves not as respectful homages to distinguished compatriots but as rude rejections of the authority of older masters. In any event, Picasso was such a protean figure and such an omnivore, in relation to his sources, that it may not be accurate or useful to restrict him to a frame of "Spanishness." Take, for example, how wrong Gertrude Stein was when, after seeing the geometric fields, dotted with olive trees, of Iberia, she declared that only a Spaniard could have invented Cubism. Picasso's "pard," the irreduceably French Georges Braque was clearly an equal partner and sometime leader in the enterprise. So much for the imperatives of national style.

If we can allow the works of art assembled for "Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso" to make up for the show's intellectual shortcomings, we must approach "Picasso and American Art," at the Whitney, quite differently. Here, the thesis the exhibition was conceived to illustrate is rigorous and the supporting scholarship impeccable. Just as in the Guggenheim show, many of the works included in "Picasso and American Art" are sufficiently compelling to be rewarding in any context, but at the Whitney, we can't ignore the generating concept of the exhibition if we are to take full advantage of what it has to offer. That Picasso's example was overwhelmingly important to several generations of forward-looking American artists is hardly a new idea. He was a distant but dominant presence for the majority of the ambitious, adventurous artists who came of age on this side of the Atlantic in the first half of the last century. (The exhibition is heavily weighted toward more recent practitioners' interest in Picasso, but that's another story.) Echoes of Picasso's innovations reverberate in the work of many of the most inventive American modernists, sometimes explicitly, sometimes in more subtle guise. Picasso was the unstoppable, constantly changing inventor, the guy to beat, who announced the rules of the contest and then kept rewriting them.

Anyone interested in American modernism knows this. What is exciting--and enlightening--about "Picasso and American Art" is that it permits direct comparisons instead of vague generalizations and "everybody knows" assumptions. Thanks to the exhaustive research of Michael FitzGerald, the exhibition's curator, and Julia May Boddewyn, the author of the catalogue's marvelous chronology of exhibitions, auctions, and magazine reproductions, from 1910 to 1957, we have a much more accurate idea of just which images were available to the New York art world during these pivotal years. Thanks to an impressive selection of works by Picasso, in various media, at the Whitney, we can see just what those ambitious young modernists were thinking about. We do better, in fact, in terms of first-hand encounters, than many of the artists under review, who were often forced, during their formative years, to rely on reproductions for information about the French vanguard, although a wonderful reconstruction of an important exhibition, "Recent Paintings by Pablo Picasso and Negro Sculpture," held at the Whitney Studio Club, in 1923, gives a vivid sense of what was, on occasion, presented in the flesh. And we can follow the responses of these eager young artists. The exhibition concentrates on nine Americans whose working lives more or less span the twentieth century and whose diverse conceptions of what a work of art can be more or less span the full range of modernist possibilities: Max Weber, Stuart Davis, John Graham, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, David Smith, Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jasper Johns. Together, their work bears witness both to Picasso's undeniable influence and to their audacity in attempting to meet the challenge of this towering European authority figure and, in the best of their work, their originality and inventiveness.

The strongest and most direct influence came from Picasso as a Cubist, undoubtedly because Cubism, in both its analytical and synthetic phases, offered so powerful an alternative to conventional representation, even to conventional representation inflected by Cezanne. At the Whitney, the selection of Cubist Picassos ranges from intimate, exquisite works on paper from around 1912 to rollicking still lifes of the early Teens to full-throttle masterworks such as the Philadelphia Museum's Three Musicians (1921). Stuart Davis, in particular, was fascinated by this picture and the exhibition includes several iterations of his energetic reinvention of its interlocking planes, with the three musicians' costumed figures transformed into landscape allusions. The selection at the Whitney gives Davis his due as the originator of a home-brewed version of Cubism, indebted to Picasso, but nonetheless vigorous, personal, and different in theme and form from anything being made in Paris. We can watch Davis play with Cubist simplifications, adapting them to vernacular New World subject matter in some crisp still lifes, and applaud his mastery of Cubist space in a couple of large all-American Gueridons, painted in 1922, that could hold their own with any European painting of the time.

Some of Picasso's most influential works, such as the jagged, tightly packed nudes of early Cubism, are present only in the visible echoes within the efforts of the Americans in thrall to their power, although the point is still plainly made. We can see that Weber, a pivotal figure because of his extended sojourn in Paris--he was a student at Matisse's short-lived school and a member of the Stein circle--expended a great deal of energy trying to come to terms with these ferocious women, taming them by confining them to small canvases. Three decades later, Pollock had a similar confrontation with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, whose spiky, seductive presence haunts such brushy, loaded, "prepour" paintings as Gothic (1944, Museum of Modern Art, New York) and Troubled Queen (1945, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

The sinuous shapes of Picasso's paintings of the early 1930s, several of which are included at the Whitney, resound in de Kooning's paintings of the 1940s, both those that cling to a kind of deconstructed, hyper-elegant figuration and those whose elongated biomorphic forms are at once body-like and point towards abstraction. The exhibition suggests that the neo-classical Picasso, exemplified by the goddesslike Woman in White (1923, Museum of Modern Art, New York), informs Gorky's achingly sensitive portrait of himself and his mother, and related figurative works. Maybe. Gorky was undeniably "with Picasso," as he described his self-imposed apprenticeship to synthetic Cubism, just as earlier, he was "with Cezanne," working through his enthusiasm for these artists by internalizing the ideas they offered. But Gorky's admiration for Ingres--which he shared with Picasso--along with the residue of his own hard-won representational skills and the example of his friend de Kooning's efforts simultaneously to exploit and resist his virtuoso draftsmanship are as present in his melancholy portraits as Picasso's influence.

The one-sidedness of the Whitney's account of this conversation is a problem throughout the show. David Smith, for example, first made sculpture in steel after seeing Picasso and Gonzalez's pioneering constructions reproduced in a special issue of the French magazine Cahiers d'Art, but you'd never know that from the groupings in "Picasso and American Art." Smith is well represented, but in relation to Picasso's works in two dimensions, rather than three. More problematic is the fact that, while Smith was obviously indebted to Picasso, he was as omnivorous in his choice of sources as Picasso himself. Egyptian tomb furnishings, medieval waterholders, biological specimens, fossils, girlie magazines, and, among much more, the sculpture of Alberto Giacometti, in his Surrealist phase, all informed Smith's work. To reduce this complexity to a single-minded study of Picasso distorts our understanding of Smith. Yet, on balance, this is a quibble. The comprehensive catalogue of "Picasso and American Art" more than makes up for any shortcomings in the show and there are plenty of outstanding works to engage our attention. All this, and we get to think about Picasso, too, although perhaps not as much as that monstre sacre might have wished.

(1) "Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso" opened at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, on November 16, 2006 and remains on view through March 28, 2007.

"Picasso and American Art" opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art on September 28, 2006 and remains on view through January 28, 2007.
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Title Annotation:Art; Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso, Picasso and American Art
Author:Wilkin, Karen
Publication:New Criterion
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
Words:3059
Previous Article:Well-made & not-so-well-made.
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