CLEVELAND — THERE is no escape. In order to understand the 20th century, you have to come to terms with the central figure of 20th-century Western art - Pablo Picasso. The old master of modern iconoclasm still surprises and offends, though the public now appears to gaze approvingly upon his aesthetic innovations and explorations.
The Cleveland Museum of Art offers a sterling opportunity to find one's own way through the evolution of Picasso's ideas and formal development in its excellent exhibition of Picasso's still lifes, "Picasso and Things," covering 67 years of the master's career.
Still lifes (compositions of inanimate objects) traditionally lay at the bottom of high art's hierarchy of subject matter. The everyday, homey objects - bowls of flowers, musical instruments, pipes, books, foodstuffs, and utensils of the table - were once thought to be of far less significance than religious and historical subjects, figure, landscape, and portraiture. So the unique idea of a still-life exhibition of Picasso's work was greeted at first with skepticism and finally with delight by some art historians and critics, according to William Robinson, the museum's curatorial assistant of modern art.
It turned out to be a terrific idea. While still lifes make up only about 25 percent of Picasso's total output, the intimate genre manages to catalog the range of the painter's varied career, following his formal development in the reinterpretation of recurrent themes. Here the oxymoron of "still (or dead) life" takes on sometimes confrontational, sometimes revolutionary, significance. Many of these works are large in size and monumental in feeling. Some are monumentally disturbing. All are stunningly ri ch in ideas and often in their application of paint. Sometimes they are beautiful (despite an arrogant rejection of 19th-century ideals of beauty), and sometimes, perfectly horrifying.
Ever the trickster (he often identified himself as Harlequin), Picasso said he always put something in his pictures to surprise and to offend. Though he was a master draftsman, he could be intentionally crude or "primitive" in his handling of paint. He flaunted his outrageousness over the course of his life. A genuine subversive, anarchist, and later in life a communist, he meant to shake the very foundations of the West - and he did, too, at least in the art world.
One of the great delights of a show this large and this well thought out is to see what time does to ideas, to try to recapture the earth-shattering quality of revolutionary aesthetic discovery. Cubism, particularly that called "Analytical Cubism," is still shattering if seen in the right spirit. To stand in the presence of a piece like "Bottle, Glass, and Fork" (1911-12) or "The Architect's Table" (1912) is to realize how absolutely Picasso (with fellow Cubist Georges Braque) destroyed the tyranny of Re naissance perspective and opened up new vistas of possibility in art and in thought. Analytical Cubism makes you rethink the very space you inhabit.
So the implications of the work exceed aesthetics. They imply that there is much more to the immediate experience of a single dinner table than the eye perceives. The tilted table tops in both of these paintings include within their oval lines complete microcosms in which knife, bottle, drawer, glass, etc. are revealed in all their complexity and all at once in two-dimensions - a world in a grain of sand, in poet William Blake's terms. They offer a kind of puzzle: You stand there trying to find all the r eferential images. But no single inch of the paintings is less important than another. All the objects are equal facets of a single world.
This is not a human-centered universe Picasso has created here. His iconoclasm (meaning literally the breaking of images) is so profound, it really does shake the foundations of perception. It still does, because for all the lessons of the art of this century, most of us still look at our lives as little dramas in which we are each protagonists. There's so much more going on in the Cubist vision. It's humbling.
The exhibition glides right along revealing the rapid stylistic evolution of Cubism, from the revelatory grace of the 20-year-old Picasso's "Still Life (La Desserte)" (1901) to what is believed to be the single still life from his Blue Period, "Blue Glass" (1903). Most of the works are paintings or collage (very flat), but a number of three-dimensional pieces are also included.
"Fan, Salt Box, Melon" (1909) is an early Cubist gem, in which the objects have been analyzed, opened up, and flattened out. The melon glows with its own light, the green fan retains its complex identity, the salt box stands open and ready for use by the diner. Perspective is gone, but the objects are still identifiable.
By 1910, Analytical Cubism had "abstracted" the objects of the world into their prismatic parts. Picasso always started with the things of the world. The guitar or the bottle or the jug might get harder and harder to identify (as in "Guitar," 1913, or "Glass and Die," 1914), but they originate in real life. Picasso was never really an abstract artist.
As he moved into Synthetic Cubism and beyond, further away from traditional realism into more decorative designs, he retained the trickster quality. It isn't far-fetched to see a Venus of Willendorf-like figure within the weird flowers in "Still Life With Umbrella" (1968), and the vase becomes a comic-horror portrait (perhaps even a self-portrait). Picasso historians find symbolic and literal meaning in many of these still lifes. A jug from his classical period becomes his pregnant wife, Olga - a thesis I find distracting and exaggerated. A yellow jug in "Still Life on a Table" (1931) is said to represent his mistress Marie-Thse. But looking too literally for that kind of content makes it hard to see the relationship between forms in nature. The jug's curves resonate with the curves of Marie-Thse's golden curls.
Obsessive meditations on death and cruelty surface in works like "Skull, Sea Urchins, and Lamp on a Table" (1946), "Trussed Cock" (1962), and "Still Life with Sausage" (1941). The latter suggests film noir expressionism with its brutal imagery. The creatures of "Crab, Eels, and Fish" (1940) would fit nicely onto any comic horror film's dinner table. The sardonic wit and the mean-spirited, caustic dance of the absurd breaks out again and again in all these works. His identification with the grotesque figu re of the minotaur is a glorification of the bestial in his own nature. The minotaurs often resemble him. In "Still Life With Red Bull's Head" (1938), he places that minotaur head on a pike. Picasso mocked himself, as well as the rest of the world.
Picasso was the embodiment of tortured 20th-century consciousness: forceful, innovative, restless, savage, comic, ruthless, playful, iconoclastic, irreverent, vicious, perceptive, alienated, political, dark, depraved, misogynistic, and brilliant.
The force of his controversial personality, though, is less overwhelming in the still lifes than in much of his other work.
Consequently, "Picasso and Things" allows a little thoughtful distance from his total contribution, a quieter opportunity to explore the areas of form he explored, and a chance to find one's own way through the mire to the genius of his art.