The Measure of the Man: Introduction to the de Young Picasso Exhibit

It is impossible to fully appreciate the breadth and depth of Picasso’s art without pouring through his catalogues raisonnés (the tomes that illustrate all of his known artworks).  Visiting the Picasso Museum in Paris is as close as one can come to achieving this goal by looking at the actual art.  The traveling loan from that museum at the de Young includes many masterpieces but is still a very small sample of his work.  It’s about as representative as 150 of his artworks could be, but he created so many varied styles and subjects that they couldn’t be included in any depth, or some of them included at all, in a show of this size.  The exemplars of the Blue and Rose Periods are quite lean, Cubism is narrowly surveyed, the entire decade with Françoise is represented by only four drawings and prints, and Late Picasso gets short  shrift.  By contrast, 150 works of any other artist, or even 15 works, would give you a pretty good idea of what that artist was about.  The de Young exhibit makes a noble effort at taking the measure of the man, and it scores many points by including a proportionate number of drawings and prints and a disproportionately large number of sculptures, rather than just paintings.  But in the end, thoroughness remains an unattainable goal.  The Picasso Museum in Paris with its vast collection has the best shot at it.  The only temporary exhibit that ever came close was the 1980 Picasso retrospective at the MOMA, but it had a 1000 Picassos on view.  (A show of that scale is never to be repeated.)  We Picasso lovers make do with what we can: we see his work piecemeal in various museums, and we rely upon illustrations in books and websites to flesh out our understanding.  And every now and then we have the good fortune to see a Picasso exhibit that examines a single period in depth.

This realization, that only the Musée Picasso comes close to doing Picasso justice, is one step along the path to the inevitable conclusion that Picasso is the greatest artist of all time.  The staggering number of his styles through which he alternately reflected and distorted reality, and the complexity (or deceptive simplicity) and the masterfulness of each of them bear witness to his unparalleled imagination and establish his supremacy.  Van Gogh was a great artist, but how many styles did he have?  Basically, one.  The mature Gauguin?  One.  Manet?  One.  Monet?  One, one-and-a-half.  Matisse?  I’d pretty much call it two.  Miró?  I haven’t counted, but let’s grant him several.  Each of the pre-Moderns?  Certainly just one.

A second, albeit more subjective argument for Picasso’s supremacy is that his art is unutterably beautiful in spite of its distortions of reality (one could argue because of its distortions), as opposed to, say, Dali, an admittedly great artist, but one whose anatomic distortions were more grotesque than beautiful.

The third argument for Picasso’s supremacy is his graphic mastery, which was at least as good as any of his predecessors (and certainly no one has challenged it since).  Not that you need to know how to draw anymore to be a competent artist today.  Abstraction is how contemporary art has sidelined drawing, but Picasso for the most part avoided it (though you’ll see one painting in the exhibit that foreshadowed abstract art).  He didn’t need abstraction, and it would have been insufficient to convey his complex vision, unlike his unfailing line.

Since drawing is no longer a prerequisite, what are the requirements for being a great artist today?  An artist must still be compositionally adept.  But more than ever before, and especially if he can’t draw, the artist today has to be imaginative.  Imagination, I would submit, is the hallmark of modern art.  Whereas art was once the only way of depicting the physical world, that task has been largely assumed by the camera.  So why compete with it?  An artist cannot surpass it, and his efforts in doing so are merely a function of skill, not imagination.  Photorealistic painting still has a few adherents, but today imagination rules.  We rightfully value skill, but we really respond to imagination and beauty.  Having reached the top of all three of these pinnacles is a unique accomplishment and defines the greatness of this quintessentially modern artist.  So fasten your seat-belts and prepare for launch.  Yes, the show is small, relative to Picasso’s vast body of work.  But given the dearth of Picassos in the Bay Area, for us it is huge.