picasso: contextualizing art and artists

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Orson Welles, in his movie F is for Fake, in which Picasso figures prominently.

Approaching Picasso is a daunting task, simply because he is so famous and his work so highly-regarded. It’s almost easier to discuss Picasso in relation to other artists and other artwork, simply because it provides an anchoring point. Otherwise, a person could get lost and wander forever in a discussion of his work and his life. Maybe Tate Britain also felt that way, and so decided to approach his work through comparison with other artists in their Picasso & Modern British Art exhibit.

Comparative literature and art hope to achieve greater truths and more perceptive insights by comparing and contrasting art and artists. But comparisons threaten to diminish the artists individually, and may over-define, over-contextualize the artwork. With that in mind, I found Tate Britain’s goal of showing not only Picasso’s work but his influence admirable, but not effective. In some cases,  the connection was tenuous and sometimes irrelevant. In others, the parallels reduced the importance and skill of the British artists, like Duncan Grant. Alone, Grant is impressive, but when compared with Picasso, he seems unremarkable. Also, some of these individually remarkable works, like Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure, were diminished by being so heavily contextualized. Lastly, I’m not sure if a show dealing with Picasso’s influence is even necessary, since it’s so widely appreciated. Further to that point, I’m not convinced discussing his influence via Modern British Art is effective. Though it occurred, there are more salient points of that art period and these artists to discuss. It was certainly an effort by art historians, where the analysis came first and the art second.

From beginning to end, it seemed to me that the discussion of Picasso’s influence was often more a discussion of imitation, though it ended on a high note with Hockney. But Duncan Grant and Graham Sutherland’s artwork, specifically, seemed too directly defined by Picasso’s. Their inclusion didn’t give any more depth to our understanding of Picasso, but did decrease my appreciation for their artistry.

This is especially true for Duncan Grant’ 1913 piece, The Tub. This piece was considered part of the modern, “primitivist” movement, of which Picasso was a major figure. In this context, Grant lost his individuality and his artistic individuality – as an artist, he played with trends, but in the context, he looked like a copycat. I looked up his other work, though, and found that he seemed to be heavily influenced by all kinds of artists, including Seurat. Even recognizing his individual merit artistically, his work doesn’t seem to be more influenced by Picasso than any other prominent artist. In such a large show, the inclusion of an artist like Grant, and later Sutherland, was unnecessary clutter.

I felt immediately an attraction to Henry Moore’s sculptures later in the exhibit, and could track the influence by the juxtaposition of the two artists’ work. The linkage in this portion of the exhibit was particularly strong and one of the most effective portions of the exhibit. In both Picasso and Moore’s work, the human form was heavily simplified and distorting, owing debts to what the referred to as “primitive” traditions. I so badly wanted to be able to touch Moore’s work, because the lines were so fluid and the form so intriguing. It reminded me strongly of Picasso’s Head of a Woman, in that it made me want to touch it and let me around the form with its curves. Those pieces were both such striking testaments to physicality, and both felt feminine and intimate.

The choice to include Francis Bacon’s work was a bold and effective one for this collection. He’s one of the small set of artist included whose presence enhanced both the overall exhibit and the impression of his work individually. His work, gruesome and grotesque, shared some of the drama which make Freud’s and Picasso’s work so compelling. Even though Picasso’s approach to emotional turmoil was less overt than Bacon’s, both dealt with that in their work. The most eye-catching piece of Bacon’s, for me, was his Study for Three Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion, 1944. I  was interested in the simplification of their faces to gaping mouths, and in the treatment of extreme agony. The emotion, so wrought and raw against a swathe of orange, caught my imagination and meant that I couldn’t look away. Picasso also dealt with crucifixion, but I think the connection between the artists is less concrete here than that. It seems to me that Bacon was inspired by Picasso’s approach to art, and the themes in Picasso’s art, more than Picasso’s style or subject matter. I noticed little overlap in subject matter and very few similarities in style, though Bacon’s exposure to Picasso was definitely influential to his career. It’s said that Bacon began to pursue visual art seriously after seeing an exhibit of Picasso’s work.

An individual’s evaluation of Picasso is almost like a litmus test of insight and intelligence. Work that really grabs hold of my attention does so without my conscious consent, and I didn’t feel that way very often about Picasso’s work. I hesitate to admit this, but I’m not sure I’m qualified to evaluate Picasso simply because I’m not sure I “get it.” I can appreciate academically his importance in art’s progression, and understand why people are so attracted to him, but I don’t personally feel that way very often about his work. I enjoy it, but that attraction is more academic than instinctive. At the end of the day, I’m not much for Modernist art in general, and that may be the problem.

As always, laissez les bon temps rouler,

the girl

N.B. I hyperlinked most of the images, rather than posting them, for licensing reasons.

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