By: Leo Kepler
You might have to stand in line if you go to Gagosian Gallery on a Saturday to see ninety-three late Picassos, 52 paintings and 41 prints, ranging from 1962 to 1972. “Mosqueteros,” curated by John Richardson, is stunning in its intelligence, precision and harmony. Richardson did not hang the exhibition, but composed it, creating a magnificent counterpoint. The pieces resonate within and across the exhibition halls; often, they are shaped into chords that echo each other. Every wall is a complete phrase simultaneously responding to and contrasting with several others thematically, rhythmically, chromatically, or tonally. Each hall is a movement exposing new dimensions of Picasso’s late themes.
In his conversation about drawing with the late William Rubin (made public by Leo Steinberg in the Other Criteria), Picasso explained his creative urgency via an imaginary clause: to draw “as if to possess.” John Richardson took a parallel leap and looked at Picasso’s work as if to posses. I went to see this show many times hoping to own Richardson’s masterpiece with my memory. The exhibition rightly disregards chronology. I came to the conclusion that it defies the generally accepted clockwise direction of museum floor plans as well—walking through this exhibition widdershins reveals the structure of its composition better. The counterclockwise motion allows one to navigate through a show without being captive to the thinking implicated in the traditional linear, historic, clockwise arrangement. One is free to look for other connections; liberation can make one more sensitive. Because it implies the reversal of time, the nature of counterclockwise course also reflected Picasso’s spirit of this period, poignantly described by John Richardson as “the race against death.”
Picasso’s “race against death” is powerfully self-reflexive—his late paintings chronicle his ongoing contemplation of life and its finiteness. It is not by chance that so many of them are self-portraits, though few are titled as such. Mostly, they are presented as characters: Homme, Personage, Figure, Torero, Matador, Peintre, or Mousquetaire. Some are portraits of persons from other centuries, and some are titled simply as heads or busts. I perceive most of them as imaginary self-portraits: Picasso is in a different impersonation each time, often disguised as an artist from another century, or as a character in the old masters’ paintings that he admired; or perhaps, he is all of these - possibly, he imagined himself as El Greco, for instance, painting a self-portrait. I am not sure that his preoccupation with the paintings from the past was intended to be a dialogue with the past. I wonder if an artist looks at the earlier works of art with a full awareness of their place in time. Picasso’s “old master” paintings are also about timelessness — unlike Jacqueline or himself, Velazquez’ Meninas, for example, are not mortal. But it is in the veiled, imaginary self-portraits that Picasso convened both his mortality as a human being and his artist’s intimacy with timelessness.
Floor plan: Roman numerals – halls; Arabic numerals – works (fig.); * - flowers mentioned.
The past is looking at us through the eyes of L’homme au casque d’or (d’après Rembrandt) on July 17, 1969 (fig.1). But unlike in a Rembrandt, the crown-like helmet is taken off. Though, the only possessions relinquished here are past achievements; the demise did not turn into a road towards death but started a new journey. In his late phase Picasso became the Jester, the Fool. Renouncing previous victories bought fresh energy — the past gave birth to a future.
Enter the hall on you right—the central wall commands your attention. Three self-portraits manifest the intensity of Picasso’s relentless attempts to outwit Death. On September 17, 1969 he is holding a rifle (fig. 2). Is he giving his weapon away? Two months ago he took off his crown. Not yet. On October 16, 1970 he put on his torero costume again, a sword in his hand (fig. 4). But why is he holding his hand to his heart? What is he asking for? Time? A month later, on November 17, 1970 he is the Matador facing Death: look at his eyes—the stare is no longer his usual mirada fuerte (the untranslatable Andalusian expression for a strong, penetrating, domineering gaze, adopted by Richardson to describe Picasso’s powerful stare) (fig.3). One, I imagine, cannot possess death. Turn around—three days later, on November 21, 1970 he appears as the Magician, his hat forming a lemniscate of infinity (fig. 5). He is still watching us.
Pablo Picasso, Buste, 1970. Oil on canvas, 39 ½ x 32 inches (100 x 81 cm). © P.A.R. Photo Marc Domage.
But even as Picasso was facing death, he never let women out of his sight. And in contrast to death, which demands full surrender, women are not so consistent; I believe they want polarity—to rule and to be possessed. Standing in front of the wall of nudes in this hall, I thought, not for the first time, that many of Picasso’s late portrayals of women as well as some of his other late erotic works were visual representations of sex in its happening, of possessing and surrendering taking place. On June 1, 1972 he conceived Etreinte in which he was present visually (fig. 6).
Pablo Picasso, Étreinte, 1972. Oil on canvas, 51 ¼ x 76 ¾ inches (130 x 195 cm).
Photo Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.
It is not a painting of a couple, but a representation of making love. When painting women, Picasso himself is always present, visible or invisible. For him the act of painting corresponded to that of lovemaking, and the erotic subject was an alignment of both universes. Simultaneously, the process of painting, which is an alternation between an artist taking action and a work responding to this action and leading an artist further, mirrors the interplay of possession and surrendering in love and this synchrony transfuses the theme as well.
In his late erotic representations of women there’s no distance between the work and the artist; the artist is not an observer but is caught in the act. Both temporally and spatially he is unable to maintain his sustained, detached gaze; and the visual information he receives is non-continuous and multi-perspective. The experience is a synthesis on many levels; hence the representation is a “fragmentation.” How else can an artist portray an act with which he is one? I also don’t see this “fragmentation” as a straightforward cubist legacy. The late period, erotic “deformation” is not only about form, but about trans-formation, that is process and time; it is a visual present continuous tense, and sex, as life at its most unrepressed, is its best fitting subject.
The profile visible through the passage on the right invites us into the next hall. The portraits are hung beautifully: five of them are arranged as a group, and two smaller works are hidden among the prints as secret observers. Peintre au visage vert (fig. 7) of May 4, 1967 leads us into the next hall to Le peintre au XVIIème siècle (fig. 8) of April 28, 1967. Here, the portraits are arranged into two groups divided by Vase de fleur sur un table. The flower is reflected in Portrait de l’homme à l’épée et à la fleur on the left wall and in Mousquetaire et femme à la fleur on the right one. Pondering over Vase de fleurs sur une table painted three days after Picasso’s eighty eighth birthday, Richardson shares his delicate observation that “the curlicue eyes, stalk of a nose, and tufts of leafy hair in this birthday flower piece suggest a self-portrait.” Picasso’s imaginary self-portraits, in the human form or not, went beyond theater; each one wasn’t a role but a metamorphosis.
The left wall echoes the erotic sequence in the second hall—it creates a parallel blue rhythm. The wall opposite the two groups of portraits displays three paintings acutely described by Richardson as the “three ages of man.” The Magician is back, his magic wand with him—but, alas, it cannot reverse time. The portraits on the left wall lead us to the point where we have begun. We come to two paintings, self-portraits: in one of them Picasso put a hat in the shape of the lemniscate of infinity once again, but this time his gaze is directed elsewhere (fig. 9).
Picasso’s late work is one tremendous self-portrait, and at the same time it is an intimate diary – hence the obsessive dating of each piece. Picasso quoted by Brassai: “Why do you think I date everything I do? Because it is not sufficient to know an artist’s works – it is also necessary to know when he did them, why, how, under what circumstances….” Its function is to record, to continue an internal conversation, to posses, to let go and keep going. The late works are not works of art, but a by-product of living that won the race against death.
"Picasso: Mosqueteros" at Gagosian Gallery runs through June 6th
Official Picasso site: www.picasso.fr
On-line Picasso project: https://picasso.tamu.edu/picasso/
Take the C or E train to West 23rd Street and/or take the M23 bus to 23rd Street and 11th Avenue
Gallery hours: Mon—Sat, 10 am to 6 pm
Gallery website: https://www.gagosian.com/exhibitions/2009-03-26_pablo-picasso/