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Pablo Picasso, Seated Woman, 1920. Courtesy: Musée Picasso, Paris

Picasso: Challenging the Past
At the National Gallery, London


by Anna Leung

This exhibition revolves around the persistence of the Western canon in the whole of Picasso’s oeuvre and the importance of the old and modern masters to his art practice. It comes close to intimating that without the infrastructure provided by these masters Picasso would not have had a matrix out of which to extract his own radicalising vision. This goes some way toward explaining why his engagement with abstraction remained liminal; his own story, and that of his predecessors, was too important. Such an approach substantially modifies the history of modern art that takes Cubism as its main point of inception. For as long as this was the prevailing view, Picasso’s radical innovations tended to be allied to his appropriation of Iberian sculpture and of African masks and the conceptual somersault to which this reorientation gave rise. The sense of drama Picasso created through his deconstruction of figures and objects within a Cubist framework of fractured and angled planes was interpreted as an avant gardist assault on tradition. Picasso, Challenging the Past attempts to realign Picasso with the great artists of the past whom he both revered and rivalled, to reintegrate him within the grand tradition. Whether it is successful in this aim is one matter and whether Picasso is successful is yet another.

Picasso, Challenging the Past suggests, therefore, a more conservative, though not necessarily a regressive, orientation and has as its main aim to illuminate the fact that right from the start, Picasso was engrossed in a dialogue with the Old Masters. It was previously assumed that his "old master period" was confined to his late period from the late 1950s, when Jacqueline Roque, his second wife, jealously guarded his privacy and he, by this time himself an old modern master, was leading an increasingly solitary life at Mougins. In the absence of the stimulus of museums and galleries, Picasso sought the company of the great through reproductions and slides, which he projected on the wall whilst actively sparring with them. Paris was by then no longer the hub of the contemporary art world, having been overtaken by New York, and abstraction was in its ascendency with the emergence of Abstract Expressionism in the States. This is the period dominated by his studies of iconic masterpieces. Whether this was motivated by a need to appropriate them or outrival them, whether his need was to honour them or honour himself remains an open question.

Not all of Picasso's incursions into the territory of the great masters met with unqualified success. Indeed, his variations on Delacroix, Velazquez, and Manet have been cited as evidence not of his genius but of a distressing lack of it; worse still, they have been taken as a demonstrations of his inability to outrival them that exposes a deep seated narcissistic rage and envy. It has sometimes been argued that this rage and jealousy, plus evidence of a sadistic streak, explains Picasso's disfiguring manipulation of the female form resulting in the creation of rapacious monsters of ugliness that contrast with paintings of "la femme fleur" which represent his happier, Arcadian moments with a new love object. It may be that Picasso did not consider this subject matter ugly in the conventional sense or, if he did, he may have perceived it as an ugliness that was not necessarily autobiographical but an index of the ugliness in the world around him, just as the still-lifes he painted during the occupation of Paris by the Nazis refer not to his own curfewed existence but to the larger subjugation of the French people. Certainly, there is a definite correlation between Picasso's adoption of a particular technical style and the appearance in his life of each new successive lover: Olga is painted in a pictorial language that is cool and neoclassical, while the depiction of Marie-Therese is surreal and organic and that of Dora Maar is angular, acidic, and deeply disturbing. Interestingly the amazon-like nudes that represent his second wife, Jacqueline Roche, function as an amalgam of cubism and monumental neoclassicism based on Goya’s Naked Maya.

Whatever the case, Picasso comes over as a being governed by contradictions, "a twofold being" endowed with a dual vision that forever engenders a multiplicity of images. Equally telling in this exhibition, especially in the portion devoted to the post-cubist era, is Picasso’s need and ability to juggle particular styles or techniques. Painting becomes a set of visual languages based on signs, which Picasso combines and recombines at his ease. Throughout the exhibition we see Picasso shuffling quasi-representational and cubist styles and their schematic modes of presentation, even playing one against the other in the same painting. This is apparent in the last version of Women of Algiers where the woman on the left is partly painted in a naturalistic Matissean style while her companion is subjected to a cubist analysis. This figure, that like many of his nudes, has as its aim to create a coincidence of front and back which, though conceptually rational in its striving to present a maximum amount of visual information, necessarily results in deformation. Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, painted in 1907, exhibits very similar properties, with figures on the right and left sides painted according to conflicting visual schemata. This, as can be inferred from Picasso's frequent notations, demonstrates that he sought to restore to cubism’s two-dimensional unfolding of solids a lost sensuous and sculptural presence. (For a truly magisterial exposé of this phenomenon, read the essay by Leo Steinberg entitled "The Algerian Women and Picasso at Large" in his book Other Criteria.)

This very fact that Picasso could not be confined to one style at any one period and that his facility took him in very different directions so that there was never one overarching trajectory guiding his work argues, I think, in favour of a chronological rather than the existing thematic layout of the exhibition. This would allow the basic premise of the exhibition to make itself felt by showing clearly that Picasso privileged no one exclusive aesthetic ideology, no one formula, no one vision, but borrowed a plethora of styles from other artists and adapted them to his practice. The one exception would have been his cubist period. But without Braque, Picasso naturally reverted to representation and the type of draughtsmanship he had been taught by his father; in fact, he had never really abandoned it. Possibly because of this eclecticism, time and place were deemed very important to Picasso who insisted on dating most of his work, including his exploratory sketches, explaining, ". . . it’s not sufficient to know an artist’s work- it is necessary to know when he did them, why, how, under what circumstances."

Picasso’s seemingly innate talent at for appropriating pictorial styles is already indicated in the very first room of self-portraits. We are told that most are viewed through the lens of traditional or modern masters, and in the majority of cases this makes good sense. An early Goya inspired Picasso is followed by Yo Picasso, a Lautrecian/Munch inspired self-portrait in which the artist brashly looks down on the viewer, his face exuberantly lit up from below. Self Portrait with Palette (1906), with its mask-like face, announces a rejection of the Western canon dependent on the illusionism of the Renaissance tradition and makes this move into the pre-cubist period via Gauguin, while In the Garden refers in sorrow to the passing of his arch rival Matisse. When the Galeries nationales in Paris hosted the related exhibition Picasso et les Maitres at the Grand Palais (6 October 2008 - 2 February 2009), the original old masters were included to accompany each painting. Since the National Gallery has not followed suit, the links are often tenuous and seem, as in the association of The Kiss of 1969 with Henri Rousseau, to make little sense. It seems much more probable that Picasso’s inspiration comes not necessarily even indirectly from Rousseau but directly from Hollywood and the big black and white screen. In the absence of the originals which may have furnished Picasso’s inspiration for a particular painting, the spectator falls into a shallow game of "spot the likeness" that detracts from a deeper reading of Picasso’s explorations.

It is therefore when the viewer begins to realise that apart from the cubist period when Picasso was like a mountaineer tied by his waist to Braque--and this must be why of all Picasso’s oeuvre cubism, his most significant breakthrough, is nevertheless the least represented--Picasso never desisted from annexing and combining thematic and compositional elements from the traditional and modern art worlds, that the exhibition begins to make more sense. This dual movement of looking back and simultaneously looking forward, going forward by looking back, underpins much of Picasso’s prodigious output as he reworked traditional genres such as the nude, still life and portrait. To this extent, Picasso remains part of an ongoing artistic tradition based on homage and challenge that has, ever since the Renaissance, attempted to reinterpret past masters, reiterating given themes in a new pictorial language of formal and schematic invention.

Pablo Picasso, Male and Female Bathers, 1921. Courtesy: Nahmad Collection, Switzerland.

In this light, Picasso's realism takes on a new breadth of meaning. The period after World War I is dominated by virtuoso Ingresque portraiture, which includes the cool detached appraisals of his wife Olga, but also by monumental neoclassical nudes, which share space with a subdued and tamed cubism in which ambiguity has been replaced by Matissean decorative effects. All of these phenomena share an affiliation with a marked return to order after the heady days of cubist deformation. Thus, the monumental amazon who is the subject of Large Bather(1921) and attributed to the influence of Renoir, who died in 1919, seems to call a halt to cubist experimentation by embodying a classical sense of order. But it would be over simplistic to confine influences to one particular painter especially when other extra aesthetic and autobiographical aspects are significant. Picasso’s marriage to Olga Khokhlova in 1919 and the birth of their son Paulo in 1921 represented a conscious return to order on Picasso's social and career fronts, one which mirrored the retour a l'ordre happening in France at large. Picasso’s annexation of territory belonging to past masters cannot be divorced from his own personal and artistic narratives any more than it can from political issues. His art inevitably mirrored his life, representing an intensification and expression of his celebrations and tribulations, which come to a climax with Guernica in 1936, when art and life intertwined with the inexorable rise of fascism.

Realism also begins to jostle with sur-realism, a term which originated with Apollinaire but which Picasso claimed as his own in opposition to André Breton’s Surrealism. Despite being elevated to the virtual status of surrealist sainthood by Breton, Picasso rejected the notion of art created via some unconscious avenue, the artist for Breton merely a recorder. For Picasso, not only was the artist a prime site of experience, but art was a relay of his own sensuous and impassioned reality, illuminated as it were from the inside. The deep comfort of sleep (as opposed to the tumultuous dream states celebrated by Breton) as a turning away from the world and entering into a realm of inner sensation is what Picasso beautifully conveys in his Sleeping Nude with Blonde Hair (1932). This is the somnolent form of Marie-Thérèse, clothed only in Matissean arabesques in a reworking of Ingres’ odalisque, depicted as a progenitor of life, her pregnant form replete with a hidden dream of domestic bliss with Picasso that was never to be realised. Nude Woman in a Red Armchair belongs to this same family of sur-realism. This, a period of relative calm, was overtaken by the Spanish civil war, the continuing breakdown of his marriage to Olga, his secretive affair with Marie-Thérèse, and the addition of first Dora Maar and then Françoise Gilot to his array of women, all of which contributed to the expressive density of his work. Several of his wartime still-lifes, such as Flayed Sheep’s Head (1939) or Skull, Sea Urchins and Lamp (1946) can be read allegorically as referring obliquely to these various attachments. But it is, of course, in Guernica that the personal and the political, and realism and the distortion associated with cubism, meet with the greatest impact. The closest we get to this explosive energy in this exhibition is a much later work, a monochromatic painting based on Poussin’s and David’s Rape of the Sabine Women, a devastatingly terrifying image of violence and terror.

The Portrait of Jaime Sabartes as a Spanish Nobleman and Picasso’s self-portrait Man with a Straw Hat and an Ice Cream Cone are paintings of the late 1930s. Both allude to Velazquez and Van Gogh, artists Picasso admired, but in a semi-playful manner. It is not till the late 1950s that he embarked on a much more self-conscious project that involved a metamorphosis of the old masters by taking as his framework specific iconic masterpieces that would have been instantly recognisable to the art loving public. In this period Picasso does more than just cite references to past masters--he takes on a particular composition as the basis of his own stylistic and technical reinterpretation. He had already attempted a variation on the theme of Manet’s Picnic on the Grass but it had failed to elicit what he wanted, namely inspiration. It was the death of Matisse in 1954 that acted as a real catalyst; choosing Delacroix’s Women of Algiers, he set about interpreting it in the manner of Matisse, having observed, “When Matisse died, he left his odalisques to me as a legacy.” The result was a work encompassing fifteen canvases in all, based on two separate Delacroix paintings of a harem. Picasso’s reworkings of the relationship between the four women attest less to his taking on Matisse’s orientalism than to the cerebral nature of his analytic skills as he pulled the figures this way and that in an effort to integrate them into the picture plane whilst conveying a maximum of three dimensionality using the conflicting visual languages of cubist and perspectival spaces. But Matisse is there in the presence of both the odalisque and the sleeping blue nude, the latter a reference to Matisse’s fauvist Blue Nude of 1907. It is also the blue sleeping nude that undergoes the most extreme manipulations as her body is literally opened up and twisted in all different directions rather like an origami doll. Picasso’s homage to Matisse continued in a series of portraits of Jacqueline as an oriental odalisque, dressed and undressed save for a turban, a part she did not appear to relish in the least but which seems to have afforded Picasso some amusement.

This dialogue with the old masters continued with a sequence of sketches around Las Meninas by Velazquez, Picasso eventually creating 45 canvases the majority of which were based on a single figure such as the little infanta. Most of these paintings exaggerate Velazquez’s original colour schemes but the main painting on display at the National Gallery is one from which all colour has been expunged so that we are left with a monochrome grisaille. It’s an extremely curious homage to which more than one critic has ascribed hostile motivations, though more perceptive ones have interpreted the giant figure of Velazquez as a mode of reparation to Picasso’s own father. This is John Berger’s contribution from his book, Success and Failure of Picasso: “It may be that as an old man Picasso here returns as a prodigal to give back the palette and brushes he had acquired too easily at the age of fourteen.” It was, after all, Picasso’s father who had first introduced his son to the painting in the Prado. 

In 1961, Picasso returned to Manet’s Picnic, creating 92 drawings around the painting. He does not seem to be engaged in the cerebral exposition he undertook with The Women of Algiers, though it may be that he was exploring the difficulties attached to depicting figures in a landscape in terms of figure/ground integration within a cubist space, while at the same time using his own personal cast of characters, Jacqueline for instance, as Victorine, Manet’s favourite model. Perhaps Picasso recognised Manet’s weaknesses as his own, namely the difficulty Manet had in inventing compositions but also the difficulties he underwent prior to being recognised as the first modern artist. The studies ultimately yielded a series of cardboard cut-outs which were eventually cast as sculptures for the Moderna Museet in Stockholm where they have acquired a regal ease of presence they do not have in the original variations. During the last years of his life, Picasso no longer immersed himself in specific problem paintings though he continued to look to the past for inspiration as seen, for instance, in his series of musketeers which are reminiscent of figures in both Velazquez and Rembrandt. 

In 1946, Picasso presented several paintings to the French state. Prior to their being permanently housed in what is now the Pompidou Centre they were hung in the main galleries of the Louvre, first among the French masters, then among the Spanish beside Velazquez and Goya. This caused Picasso an understandable degree of anxiety, but he eventually regained his confidence and was said to exclaim, “You see it’s all the same thing! It’s the same thing!” The public at the National Gallery was not really able to gauge their own response to this declaration, since the originals were not hung alongside the Picassos. Some critics thought this was an improvement; others did not. It created an exhibition totally devoted to Picasso’s paintings, some of which held their own in this "musée imaginaire," while others did not. What we probably also needed to see, especially in the last room devoted to the old masters, to better appreciate Picasso’s degree of inventiveness, are at least some of the innumerable sketches that Picasso worked on in his effort to claim pride of place among the old masters. 

Now that Picasso has been recognised as a modern master and his work is no longer confined to the Tate but has been displayed, albeit temporarily, in the National Gallery, it could be instructive to carry on the same game and consider which 20th century artists would be displayed next to Picassos. Bacon, early Pollock, and Guston come to mind, but I’m open to other suggestions so that the challenge is no longer confined to the past but represents an ongoing revaluation in terms of Picasso’s own afterlife within the contemporary imagination. 


The exhibition Picasso: Challenging the Past was at the National Gallery, London,

from 25 February – 7 June 2009. For more information, visit

Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-retired from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking occasional informal groups to current art exhibitions. 


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