From Socialist Review, No. 173, March 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Tate Gallery, London
It says a lot about the current state of art criticism that a major new exhibition about the artist Pablo Picasso has been greeted with trivia and silly jokes. On television we have had programmes like Picasso and his Women, Who was better, Picasso or Mattisse?, and Picasso and the FBI. In the papers we have had helpful hints like this one from the Observer’s John Sweeney, ‘Much of the stuff looks as though he knocked it up smashed out of his mind’.
Even more considered critics tend to describe rather than try to understand Picasso, detailing the formal qualities of his work without explaining much at all. What drove him to his artistic vision? What is the impact of his work, and why is he so influential? Picasso continues to be popular around the world and thousands are going to see this exhibition at the Tate.
Critics have a number of difficulties with Picasso. He refused to explain or interpret his work himself, and the sheer scale and variety of his output makes him hard to pin down. What they find hardest to come to terms with is that he was an artistic rebel.
There is a widespread myth that he developed a completely private artistic language, that he was not trying to communicate about the real world. Picasso’s art was not a retreat from the world but, as he said himself, an attempt to create a visual poetry.
His first rebellion was against the conventional ‘academic’ artistic style of the day. For him and many contemporaries, realist art was no longer adequate in a world that was changing fast and furiously. Industrialisation and the triumph of city life had torn apart traditional societies, and, as the 19th century came to an end, mass production was invading everyday life. This process caused misery and dislocation for millions, and was a profound shock to Picasso, who came originally from relatively backward southern Spain.
The spread of new technologies like printing and photography posed a specific challenge to the role of artists in society. In what is called his second Cubist period, mass produced objects begin to find their way onto Picasso’s canvases. On the one hand, the world of mass production was a threat – hence the strong sense of nostalgia of many of the paintings that feature clowns and jesters or semi-mythical figures from pre-capitalist Spain. On the other hand, Picasso looked forward to a new world and talked of working towards the future. The Cubist paintings are so exciting partly because of their sense of mastering chaos.
There is a brutal and angry side to a great deal of Picasso’s work. His famous Demoiselles d’Avignon shocked even his most Bohemian friends with its savage portrayal of a group of prostitutes. This anger and anguish is often traced to intense relationships he had with a number of women in his life. His artistic approach to sexuality was shockingly honest and complex, recording sexual ecstasy, as well as the agony of jealousy and deteriorating relationships. He wanted to ‘give form to the terrors as well as the desires’. Such sexual openness was a challenge to the art establishment. His paintings were a tirade against what he saw as the ‘beauty of the museum’, which seemed to him an emotional lie.
Picasso is often regarded as being above politics, and the fact that he joined the French Communist Party in 1944 is presented as a contradiction. But he was keenly aware of the suffering inflicted by a brutal world. He was outraged at different times by the crushing of strikes in Spain, the arrest on political charges of his anarchist friend Apollinaire, and by the bombing of Guernica.
His work rarely descended to the level of propaganda, but that is not to say he was not personally political, or that politics did not influence his art. Years before he joined the Communist Party, socialist texts appeared in his Cubist collages, he painted portraits of Spanish Republican fighters, and his famous painting L’Aubade marked the defeat of the Spanish Republic in 1939.
As his friend Zermos put it, ‘His life was spent challenging aesthetic legality,’ and Picasso was quite clear that there were constant links between the artistic radical and those struggling for social change. That is why his work is full of the sense of suffering and alienation experienced by so many under capitalism, but also full of a sense of hope.
Last updated: 8 March 2017