Picasso's debt to the Old Masters

Anniversaries make good pegs to hang major exhibitions on. Picasso has two, at least, this year. It's 125 years since he was born and 25 years since his painting "Guernica" returned to his home country from temporary safekeeping in New York, marking the end of the Franco era and fulfilling Picasso's long-held wish for it.

This 20th-century epitome of "the modern artist" painted "Guernica," seen as an ultimate antiwar manifesto, while absent from Spain. In spite of this, he was, at that time, the director of the Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain's preeminent historical art museum. It is at the Prado that one-half of the current two-part exhibition of his work is staged, through Sept. 3. The other half is in Madrid's Reina Sofía Museum, the home of a fine collection of modern art – and of "Guernica."

The exhibition is called "Picasso, Tradition and Avant-Garde." It explores the remarkable fact that the artist who still popularly epitomizes "modern art" – with all its excitements, complexities, and incomprehensibility – was consumed with fascination for the Old Masters of the past.

Did he love El Greco, Velázquez, and Manet? Or did he want to (metaphorically speaking) destroy them? Clearly, on the evidence of the paintings in which he pitched his own vision into a witty, disrespectful, iconoclastic – but also admiring – confrontation with paintings by these artists, he did not, like the Italian Futurists, want to wipe out the history of art.

Since he is now, himself, a figure in that history, he has become part of the canon, as it were. As Carmen Giménez and Francisco Calvo Serraller put it in the massive catalog that accompanies the exhibition: "Picasso, the modern hero par excellence, has now become ... a paradigm that explains our own past to us, although the explanation takes the form of art, offering a past that 'never passes.' In other words, Picasso is no less relevant to the present than Giotto, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Velázquez, Vermeer, Goya, or the Altamira caves."

The extraordinary respect for Picasso the New/Old Master shown in such a sentence may or may not stand the test of time. Giotto and company (not to mention the ancient cave artists) have had a few years start on him. But Picasso is a phenomenon, indeed, and he has not, so far, undergone the fall from favor that some artists have suffered in the decades following their demise – later to be rediscovered and reinstated with all due honors.

Part of his indelible fascination is due to his fascination for "modernity" vis-à-vis "tradition." This exhibition not only reveals yet again the unstoppable inventiveness of the man, but his rewriting of the past in terms that made sense to him. The past actually fed his originality. Even at his most traditional, he didn't capitulate to conventionality or return to a comfortable past. In fact, when he comes closest to academic art, it is still as if he put quotation marks around it.

Comparatively late in his career, some critics started to question his capacity for innovation in spite of his status as a main point of reference for virtually everything "new" that had surfaced in 20th-century art. It was then he started a painted dialogue with certain masterpieces in the history of art.

In 1957, "Las Meninas" of Velázquez in the Prado (which he had actually sketched as early as the 1890s) elicited from him more than 40 paintings. The black-and-white painting shown here, one of a selection in the exhibition, is his first in the series and "takes on" the whole composition.

"Guernica" was also black and white, incidentally, as if for a major effort Picasso felt color might be a distraction. Color became a significant feature, though, in his later attacks on the Velázquez masterpiece.

The word "attack" doesn't seem inappropriate – used rather as a dog attacks a bone, simultaneously relishing its intractability and desperate to reduce it to fragments. Picasso knew, of course, that the Velázquez was bound to survive the onslaught. At the same time, he may well have expected it never to be quite the same again, rather as Cubism had made it impossible to look at art the same again.

Velázquez himself, self-portrayed in the original masterpiece, is singled out for special attention. He is vastly enlarged by Picasso so that he now dominates the canvas he is working on instead of being dwarfed by it. Picasso thus transforms the 17th-century Spanish master into a giant hero or a weird monster – or both.

Then, in his subsequent paintings inspired by "Las Meninas," Picasso more or less drops him, as if to say, "So who is the Old (or New) Master now?" His answer is, naturally, no longer Velázquez, but Pablo Picasso.

In this way, one artist first worships and then swallows his challenging predecessor. The inspiration of old art in Picasso's hands became a double-edged sword.

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