PICASSO: center of the art of our time

The art of Pablo Picasso will be discussed and analyzed for years to come. Only its range and impact seems clear to us now. His influence upon 20 th-century art has been so great that it is impossible to conceive of what it might have been without him.

He straddled and dominated the art of our time for at least 25 of the 78 years of his creative life. And even when his central position was challenged by post-World War II American painting, it was not because of loss of genius that his influence dimmed, but because of a shift of cultural emphasis.

The quality of his overall production is uneven -- but that is largely due to the fact that he painted and drew the way other people think and talk. He was restless and innovative, and his ideas didn't always work. But, I'm certain, neither did all of those scribbled on the blackboard by Einstein.

My initial and overwhelming impression of "Pablo Picasso: A Retrospective," on view here at The Museum of Modern Art, was that I was in the presence of genius.

My second was that whatever history may say about Picasso as painter and innovator, it must acknowledge him as one of the very great draftsmen of all time.

It is obvious from beginning to end, from his earliest sketches as a young boy to his last studies as a very old man, that he was born to draw, and that it was drawing which established and nourished his creative identity. As a colorist he may have been a little more than adequate; as a formal innovator, truly magnificent, but as a draftsman he was great.

The grandeur of his innovative genius is evident throughout this exhibition and is the main reason this show will be thought, talked, and written about for a long time to come.

Another reason it will be remembered is its size. It's so huge that the entire Museum has been given over to accommodate its almost 1,000 painting, sculptures, prints, ceramics, theater and costume designs. But it has been intelligently laid out. The art is arranged chronologically, with the works dating from 1894 to 1909 on the first floor, those from 1910 to 1931 on the second, and those from between 1931 and 1972 on the third. In addition, several galleries on the third floor have been set aside to house a large selection of his prints.

To assemble this show, works were drawn from 56 museums all over the world as well as from numerous private collections -- with the Modern Museum itself contributing a goodly number from its holdings.

Roughly one-third of the art on view consists of works drawn from Picasso's private collection, many of which were rarely if ever exhibited publicly during his lifetime. Included also are about 30 items never before shown or reproduced , and almost 300 pieces never before seen in this country. In short, Picasso's 78-year career has been thoroughly documented.

And what a career it was! As William Rubin, director of the museum's department of painting and sculpture, has said, "More than a great artist, Picasso was a phenomenon. We have to look back to Leonardo da Vinci to find a comparable inventiveness and range in everything that pertains to seeing. There is virtually nothing in modern art that Picasso has not invented, practiced, or at least influenced."

Picasso was inordinately gifted even as a young boy as can be seen in "First Communion," painted when he was 15. Such talent is given to very few humans. But what was most remarkable about this youngster is what he did with that talent. His art-teacher father may have helped, but the son so far out-stripped the father that one suspects Picasso was already very much on his own by the time he was barely into his teens.

Of course he had the paintings of the period's vanguard artists, especially Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Renoir, to draw from and to compare himself against. But he was never a follower. Even El Greco's well-known influence on the works of his blue period was more oblique than direct.

Remarkable as many of these blue period works were, they would probably not have established Picasso as one of the important figures of his time. It was cubism -- which he co-fathered with Georges Braque -- which set him up as a force to be reckoned with in 20th-century art.

I doubt if this century has produced any paintings more crucial and more breathtakingly on-target than his cubist works, many of which are on view here. They lie at the very heart of what 20th-century painting is all about, and served many purposes -- one of the most important being to slam the door once and for all upon our nostalgic dependency on the art and attitudes of the 19th century.

It was typical of Picasso that it should be he who slammed the door most dramatically upon the past. Saying goodbye to what was over and moving on to new horizons was fundamental to his genius.

But it was also ironic. Very few contemporary artists have dipped so consistently and so successfully into art history for subject matter and inspiration. But it was always highly selective, a kind of game he played to test his formal resourcefulness.

Once cubism had been given birth and fully explored, Picasso's restless spirit looked about for other fields to conquer. He found them in neo-classicism, in designing for the theater and ballet, in superb figure and portrait drawings (including the 1920 pencil study of Igor Stravinsky), in etchings, sculptures, and in paintings whose distortions helped establish the public image of Picasso as "the artist who paints double-faced women."

During this period his reputation soared. He became rich and famous -- and by the mid-30s he was generally conceded to be the most important painter alive.

Then came the Spanish Civil War, "The Dream and Lie of Franco," and "Guernica."

In this latter work Picasso unleashed both the fury of his Spanish soul and the full force of his formal inventiveness to produce what is probably the single most important painting of this century. Triggered by the 1937 destruction by Nazi bombers of the Basque town of Guernica, this huge black-and-white indictment against war and human cruelty occupies a unique place in Picasso's art. Oddly enough, considering the passion expended on it, there is a coldness about this work which tends to obscure rather than to emphasize the horrors depicted in it. "Guernica" is a distillation of human brutality and human suffering which registers its "message" more clearly in one's memorym than it does when one is standing in front of it.

After World War II Picasso's art took a new and gentler turn. It became more playful and lighthearted, more earthy and improvisational. He took to playing games with the art of the past, producing series of freely transcribed variations on the works of Velazquez, Cranach, and other artists. He also started painting small, frisky pictures of everyday things like birds, cats, and flowers, but always with an interesting twist of line or pattern.

He continued producing prints. His etchings and lithographs are among the best done in this century. And his ceramics caught on -- partly because of his name, but partly also because of their charm and wit.

He lived to be 91, working whenever he could.

What comes across most graphically in this exhibition is the unity and cohesiveness of his life's work despite the multiplicity of styles and forms he employed. The entire exhibition is really a huge series of variations on the theme of 20th-century reality. If one variation doesn't apply, try another.

The show will run through Sept. 16. Tickets must be purchased in advance, either in the lobby of the museum or at Ticketron outlets in the United States and Canada. No telephone or mail orders are being accepted.

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