Diana Picasso’s Giant Paris Show Explores Picasso’s Enduring Influence and Power
Baldessari, Hockney, and even Jasper Johns are all indebted to Picasso.
Upon ascending the escalators from the ground floor of Paris’s Grand Palais this month, visitors are greeted by a world-renowned scowl. Occupying the entire wall at the entrance to the museum’s genre-defying fall exhibition, “Picasso Mania”— part group-show, part retrospective, part historical archive—a photograph of the petite, Spanish-born legend of outsized spirit fixes passersby with a pair of black eyes and an impressively furrowed brow. It’s an image we all know well, and it acts as a fitting opening salvo to an exhibition that considers one of the defining figures of modern life by exploring the paths he paved for generations of artists who followed him—and those he paves still.
It’s fair to say, after all, that the spectre of Picasso haunts us—his name is basically synonymous with “modern art”—but is felt most tangibly by artists seeking to create works of value and resonance in his wake. “This show looks at Picasso not just as an artist but as a public figure with an image that is inspiring—and sometimes crushing,” curator Didier Ottinger told press at the preview on Tuesday, explaining that the show is the result of a partnership between the Grand Palais, the Centre Pompidou, and the Picasso Museum.
To that end, the first gallery introduces the man, the myth, the legend through the eyes of other artists, in a documentary grid of video portraits conceived by director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre and art historian Diana Widmaier Picasso, the artist’s granddaughter.
Facing the camera as though in dialogue with viewers, an impressive array of cultural figures including John Baldessari, Richard Prince, Faither Ringgold, Agnès Varda, Cecily Brown, and Roumauld Hazoumé explain the phenomenon named Picasso. He is described as a “warrior facing his paintings” by Adel Abdessemed and “Kaleidoscopic” by Ed Ruscha; there is no shortage of hyperbolic adulation. In short, as the voices cumulatively assert, all that we call contemporary art exists because of Picasso.
But the hero worship ends there, for the large part, and the following galleries bring to life works by other artists in surprising and inventive ways.
Organized to track three primary periods in Picasso’s output—his creation of Cubism; his fractured, often figurative and political compositions from the 1930s; and his late works, which are largely erotic in nature—the show features complex and thoughtful juxtapositions that are subtle rather than didactic.
Although Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is not present, Mike Bidlo’s impeccable 1984 copy Not Picasso (Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907) is, as are wry riffs on the gendered and post-colonial issues contained within Picasso’s original canvas. In Malcolm Morley’s Cradle of Civilization with American Woman, 1982, a headless female nude reclines in the foreground of a classic contemporary beach scene, placed in tension with anachronistically painted inserts of ancient female statuary.
A room devoted to Pop argues that artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, and Andy Warhol treated Picasso just like any other icon—as an object to be consumed, ingested, and then integrated into their own visual vocabulary.
Occasionally, the parcours is given over to a brief consideration of Picasso’s hold on a singular artist, including David Hockney and Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra, and the related anecdotes are enlightening. In 1988, for example, the late German artist Martin Kippenberger became ensorcelled by a David Douglas Duncan photograph of Picasso standing on the steps of his Cannes home in a pair of enormous white underwear. His obsession persisted—”did Picasso’s genius derive from his underwear?” he wondered—and he eventually began a series of works based on a self-portait in which he himself wears similarly generous briefs.
Jasper Johns, meanwhile, had been a faithful acolyte of Marcel Duchamp’s conceptualism in the ‘50s and ‘60s—an interest antithetical to Picasso’s pursuits. But his suite of Seasons canvases, begun in 1985, contain subtle references to Picasso’s iconagraphy, particularly a looming figurative shadow likely borrowed from Picasso’s L’Ombre, 1953, a starry sky, and a ladder, suggesting a shifting allegiance.
The show’s last section, “Bad Painting,” is devoted to Picasso’s late works, which were only appreciated posthumously. Originally shown at the Palais des Papes in Avignon in the early ‘70s, these erotic paintings and drawings of Musketeers making love were badly received and largely ignored. But their exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in London in 1981, and later at the Guggenheim, proved pivotal for a generation of artists including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and George Condo.
Ultimately, as this final gallery argues, it is Picasso’s vibrant dynamism and his absolute liberation from pictorial norms and expectations that gives his work its indisputable power—ever inspiring artists, as Faith Ringgold reflects in a short video, not to copy or imitate him but “to do their own ideas.”
Picasso.Mania is on view at the Grand Palais in Paris from October 7 – February 29, 2016
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