Defining what constitutes a “portrait” in Picasso’s work is not a simple matter. . . . It may emerge that, after this exhibition, it will be even harder than before to define what Picasso meant by a portrait.
—William Rubin, “Reflections on Picasso and Portraiture”
Of the many striking things about the exhibition called “Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation,”1 which William Rubin has organized at the Museum of Modern Art this spring, the most remarkable may be the large number of images that, by traditional standards, hardly qualify as portraits at all. It is of course the premise upon which the exhibition has been selected that, as Mr. Rubin writes on the first page of his “Reflections on Picasso and Portraiture,” “by redefining the portrait as a record of the artist’s personal responses to the subject, Picasso transformed it from a purportedly objective document into a frankly subjective one.” There can certainly be no question but that Picasso’s influence in this respect, as in others, has been immense. For as Mr. Rubin also observes: “Picasso invented or reinvented the abstract, surreal, classical, and expressionist portrait types as we know them in twentieth-century art.”
This may be a more questionable artistic legacy, however, than Mr. Rubin and the colleagues who have collaborated with him on this portrait project are prepared to acknowledge, and the complex issues that loom over this exhibition are not greatly clarified by his blithely consigning the entire history of pre-Picasso portraiture to the lowly realm of the “purportedly objective document.” There is indeed something aesthetically unseemly in applying the word “document” to what we have reason to admire in the greatest portraits of the Western tradition from, say, Titian, Rembrandt, and Velásquez to Degas, Cézanne, and Van Gogh. Social historians may wish to consult such portraits as “documents,” but Mr. Rubin is presumably addressing us as a historian and connoisseur of painting and drawing on this occasion. About Picasso as a painter and a draftsman, Mr. Rubin surely knows a good deal more than most of us, yet, in both the exhibition he has given us in “Picasso and Portraiture” and in his accompanying “Reflections” on the subject, the focus is often less on the quality of Picasso’s achievement as a portraitist than on the way the artist’s portraits—and, for that matter, the many objects in the exhibition that aren’t portraits—may be seen to provide us with an index to their creator’s state of mind or erotic disposition at the time of their creation.
About Picasso as a painter and a draftsman, Mr. Rubin surely knows a good deal more than most of us.
The principal focus, in other words, is once again on the life of the artist and the legend of his career rather than on the character and quality of his art. Not invariably so, to be sure, for there are indeed masterpieces to be seen in this exhibition, beginning with the Portrait of Gertrude Stein and the Self-Portrait with Palette (both 1906) and extending through some of the early Cubist portraits (especially those of Wilhelm Uhde, Ambroise Vollard, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, and others in 1910) to the neoclassical portrait drawings of the Teens and early 1920s. By the mid-Twenties, however, the functions of the portraiture yield to the more narcissistic project of “the artist’s personal responses to the subject,” at which point the portrait subject—especially when the subject is a woman—is totally subordinated to the hammering demands of the artist’s will.
It is interesting, moreover, that Picasso never again attempted anything like the Gertrude Stein painting—a monumental portrait of a woman who was not for him a romantic attachment but whom he had reason to regard as having an artistic authority and aspiration comparable to his own. That was certainly the way Stein saw herself. It was the way she presented herself to her inner circle, and it was one of the bases of her early friendship with Picasso. (Another, of course, was her role as a patron of his work.) Never mind that as a writer Stein wasn’t an artist in Picasso’s class; he couldn’t have known that at the time. It was important that she was an avant-garde artist and that she admired his art, for this clearly drove him to produce something major— something that went beyond anything he had created up to that time—in completing her portrait. Never again did Picasso produce a major painting of a woman that was not, in one way or another, a record of his amours.
It is worth pausing over the Portrait of Gertrude Stein for another reason: its masklike visage. It is well known that the painting caused Picasso immense trouble. As Mr. Rubin writes:
Picasso had labored over Stein’s portrait for many months before departing for Gosol in May 1906. In the course of eighty or ninety sittings, he arrived at a satisfactory rendering of her hands and body, but he remained dissatisfied with the depiction of her face, and painted it out before leaving Paris. Shortly after his return from Gosol, he repainted Stein’s face, without asking for any sittings. His new, conceptual understanding of resemblance had made further perceptual “input” superfluous.
Pierre Daix takes up the story in his essay on “Portraiture in Picasso’s Primitivism and Cubism,” in the book accompanying the current exhibition. “Gertrude Stein,” writes Mr. Daix, “connected Picasso’s stopping work on her portrait with the 1906 Salon des Indépendants and in doing so offers us a clue to Picasso’s decision. Perhaps the shock he experienced on seeing Matisse’s large canvas the Joy of Life, which hung in triumph at the Salon, and Matisse’s large exhibition at the Druet gallery, had something to do with it.” Suddenly, Picasso felt artistically outdistanced by the older Matisse, and as Mr. Daix observes: “Their competition would become even more intense when the Steins decided to buy the Joy of Life and when Matisse and Picasso finally met.” And further:
None of this means that in the spring of 1906 Picasso could already foresee the transformation of the Portrait of Gertrude Stein into the image we know. But we can surmise that he was discomforted by Matisse’s and Derain’s “anticlassical” evolution and most likely began to question the path he was following, one that was too influenced by the Ingres’ ideal of perfection.
Challenged by the primitivistic elements that were already vividly assimilated into the pictures of Matisse and his circle, Picasso responded by altering the conception of the portrait he had been at work on for so many months. The failed attempt to provide the Stein portrait with an Ingresque visage was abandoned. In Spain that summer he found in the so-called Gosol Madonna, a twelfth-century polychrome sculpture with a masklike face, a sufficiently “anticlassical” or primitivistic solution to suit his newly acquired ambition for the picture. He tested and perfected his mastery of this new vocabulary of primitivization in his renderings of the only model he had at hand—his mistress Fernande Olivier—and made such rapid progress in that direction that, as Mr. Daix points out, “Fernande had already become something of a plastic object in Picasso’s mind by the middle of the summer of 1906.” As a result, writes Mr. Daix, the “psychological emptiness” of the Fernande portraits was “now complete.” Which raises the question, of course, of whether the Fernande portraits could any longer be considered portraits. For the Stein portrait, however, Picasso had always a larger ambition: to produce an icon of the avant-garde.
When he returned to Paris in late summer [writes Mr. Daix], Picasso threw all of this accumulated experience into the masklike face of Gertrude, completing her portrait in the form in which we know it today. . . . This was how he created for Gertrude Stein a face as a woman of the avant-garde.
The portrait face, with its marks of an individual identity, had been fatefully supplanted by the mask, which symbolizes something generic and impersonal.
Soon thereafter the Picassoid mask would assume African rather than Iberian features, and in the picture—Les Demoiselles d’Avignon—that Picasso produced in 1907 with the intention of wresting the leadership of the Paris avant-garde from Matisse, elements of African and Iberian forms are discordantly combined to eradicate the last traces of the classical tradition. Les Demoiselles, whatever its autobiographical sources may be, doesn’t qualify as a group portrait. It is, if anything, a sardonic anti-pastoral, set in an urban brothel, designed to ridicule and upstage Matisse’s evocation of the pastoral in the Joy of Life. Yet even though Les Demoiselles isn’t portraiture, its absence in the “Picasso and Portraiture” exhibition is keenly felt because so much that follows in this very large show is indebted to the precedents it set—not least in its precedents in the brutish depiction of women, a brutishness that often turns the entire female figure, and not only the face, into a masklike contrivance.
The mask is, of course, an image of a fixed, highly simplified emotion.
The mask is, of course, an image of a fixed, highly simplified emotion. It is not an image of character or personality. It is not an emblem of individual identity. It is primitive in its expression of feeling. However complex its design, the mask is inimical to subtlety, contradiction, or intricacy. As a vehicle of feeling, it is not a thing of parts. It is blunt and basic. It is all one thing and not another. Quite the opposite, in other words, from the kind of human face we are likely to take an interest in: a face expressive of experience, a face marked by life and thought.
It was precisely for its dehumanized simplifications that Picasso seems to have been so strongly drawn to the mask and to masklike contrivance in depicting his friends, lovers, patrons, and other contemporaries. His 1953 Stalin is no less a mask than his 1935 Woman with a Hat, which is said to be a “portrait” of his wife Olga. The one is a recognizable likeness that was meant to aggrandize a tyrant, the other is an abstraction designed to annihilate the existence of a discarded spouse, yet both are masklike representations that convey little or nothing about their subjects but much about Picasso’s characteristic impulse to reduce the complexities of life to a radical simplification. He was very superstitious, of course; one might even say, profoundly superstitious. Even primitive, perhaps, in his belief in art as a fetish—as he once confided to André Malraux—that might be used to ward off evil spirits. “If we give spirits a form,” he said, “we become independent.” That is a formula for creating masks, not portraits.
It is one of the paradoxes of the “Picasso and Portraiture” exhibition, however, that some of the artist’s most thoughtful portraits are the nearly abstract Cubist portraits he produced in the period immediately preceding the First World War. However abstract their forms, their subjects remained recognizable, and as portraits the paintings have a wit, a sociability, an atmosphere of respect, and even an appreciation of character and a kind of nobility, that I find missing in both the early portraits and the later, more sentimental, neoclassical ones. They are also, for the most part, devoid of the unremitting nastiness and rage—the vindictive settling of emotional scores—that is so prevalent in the portraits and anti-portraits that Picasso produced in such distressing abundance in the last few decades of his life.
He predicted to Malraux that “his rage would become a prime factor in the style of our time,” and he wasn’t entirely wrong about that. Yet while Picasso boasted about his “rage,” his “rebellion,” his “aggressiveness,” it continued to bother him that other artists could do without these destructive qualities. Hence his condescending remarks about Braque—the indispensable collaborator in what is for me still the greatest period of Picasso’s art—and his repulsive assault on Bonnard. Hence, too, his mixed feelings about Matisse, the only rival he ever considered his equal, an artist he truly greatly admired, yet an artist who—as Picasso knew—remained unafflicted by the rage that came more and more to consume Picasso’s own talent and life. But rage also is a formula for the creation of masks—for radical simplification.
In the end, “Picasso and Portraiture” is an exhibition that is far too large for its artistic substance.
In the end, “Picasso and Portraiture” is an exhibition that is far too large for its artistic substance. The rage in Picasso’s art is finally deadening, and the sentimentalities of the neoclassical portraits, while always delightful on a first encounter, inevitably pall on closer acquaintance. It was, after all, an enormous risk for him to invite comparison with Ingres. It was a kind of hubris after the achievements of Cubism, and more than anything else it reminds one of Hemingway’s silly talk about getting into the ring with Tolstoy. Well, Hemingway clearly lost that contest, and Picasso lost his, too, with Ingres. He lacked the temperament, the detachment, the selflessness, that the classical ideal requires for its ultimate realization. Picasso’s classicism is a faux classicism, an impersonation, a masquerade in which the artist’s preening ego is easily glimpsed. He saved the Portrait of Gertrude Stein by abandoning the Ingresque ideal in favor of the anti-classical mask, and the result was extraordinary. When he took up the challenge of Ingres again after the creation of Cubism, much that he produced looks like unintended parody—at times brilliant parody, to be sure, but parody all the same.
The question needs to be asked: How many of the paintings in “Picasso and Portraiture” would continue to sustain our attention if not for our interest in the life of the artist? For a good deal of the public that is bound to flock to this exhibition, the show is tantamount to a Life and Loves movie—and the exhibition is inevitably being promoted to serve that interest. But it isn’t only the aesthetically innocent public that now takes this love-life interest in Picasso’s art. This approach is now celebrated in the academy and in the museums as well. Writing in the book that accompanies the “Portraiture” exhibition, Professor Robert Rosenblum hails this altered approach to Picasso as a great advance:
It is something of a jolt to turn back to 1946, the publication date of Alfred H. Barr, Jr.’s Picasso: Fifty Years of His Art. In his Old Testament of the Picasso literature, a selfless masterpiece of scholarship that laid the foundation stones for the rest of us, one discovers, for example, that Dora Maar is nowhere mentioned as the human inspiration for many of the grotesque portraits discussed in the book’s conclusion, but appears only in her cameo roles as photographer of the progressive stages of Guernica in 1937 and, later, in 1944, as a reader in one of Picasso’s plays, Le Désir attrapé par la queue. But perhaps still more surprising today is the fact that Marie-Thérèse Walter does not even figure in Barr’s name-studded index. . . . It was only, in fact, in the 1960s, especially with the publication of Françoise Gilot’s Life with Picasso (1964), that Marie-Thérèse lost her mysterious anonymity, a mythical blond goddess rendered mortal.
For Professor Rosenblum, “the welling profusion of information about Picasso’s personal life has also been leavening even familiar works with new layers of meaning that may enrich, rather than adulterate, our experience of the master’s art.”
Well, nowadays everyone knows the details of all of Picasso’s amours, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that a Broadway musical was even now in preparation on the subject. There will soon be a movie, with Anthony Hopkins, fresh from impersonating a monster in Nixon, already hard at work on the monster role in Picasso. I don’t believe that this “welling profusion of information about Picasso’s personal life” does enhance our understanding of where his achievement as an artist really lies. If it did, there wouldn’t be quite so many poor paintings—really failed paintings—in the “Picasso and Portraiture” exhibition. There has now emerged an entire literature on Picasso—and not only Picasso, of course—that combines the worst features of prurience and pedantry, a literature of Picasso-envy that found its logical reduction to absurdity in Norman Mailer’s recent opus on the subject.
The time may have come to give the whole subject of Picasso a rest for a while, for it is a subject that now seems to corrupt the judgment of the people who are drawn to it. As his old rival Matisse looks larger and larger in his artistic achievement almost year by year, for some of us Picasso’s stature diminishes—and no one even pretends to be interested in the private life of Henri Matisse. It is the work that grows on us, not the life or the legend. It’s time, in any case, to scrap all this twaddle about the mythical blond goddess—language best left to the Hollywood press agents who invented it—and get back to the art. Unfortunately, “Picasso and Portraiture” fosters precisely the kind of interest in Picasso that acts as a barrier to that task.
- “Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation” opened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, on April 28, 1996, and remains on view through September 17. A smaller version of the show will reopen at the Grand Palais, Paris, on October 18, 1996, and remain on view through January 20, 1997. A catalogue of the exhibition edited by William Rubin, with essays by Mr. Rubin, Anne Baldassari, Pierre Daix, Michael C. FitzGerald, Brigitte Léal, Marilyn McCully, Robert Rosenblum, Hélène Seckel, and Kirk Varnedoe, has been published by the Museum of Modern Art (496 pages, $75; $35 paper).
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 14 Number 10, on page 5
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