”The Europeans had shown the way; yet the avant-garde American artists had to work desperately to break away from the influence of the School of Paris and especially from that Olympian, Pablo Picasso. Like the Collective Unconscious or the dreams of childhood, Picasso’s images and icons kept creeping in while the Abstract Expressionists used both Surrealism and Abstraction to break the Spaniard’s stranglehold. Discussing art in the 1930s and 1940s, Jackson Pollock complained, “Damn that Picasso, just when I think I’ve gotten somewhere I discover that bastard got there first;” Arshile Gorky mourned that they were “defeated” by Picasso; while de Kooning said, “Picasso is the man to beat.’ ”
Within his peers, Picasso not only held his own, but remained the great presence of contemporary art; not as a grand old patriarch to be revered by his descendents, but as an artist whose vigor and invention remained phenomenal. There were very few painters of any importance whose artistic genealogy did not include Picasso somewhere. The invention since ”Guernica” , has continued to be, to a large extent, as in the purely formal aspects of that great painting, a combination and recombination of the vocabulary that Picasso had developed by the mid 1930’s. The general course of Picasso’s art from Guernica until his death was a steady gentling, although any generality applied to Picasso is proved by an unusually large number of exceptions.
Parallels have been drawn between Picasso’s changes of style and the succession of love affairs, liaisons and marriages that began early in Paris. It is true that a secondary history of his career as an artist could be summarized in the portraits he has done of his various companions.
If his most spontaneous paintings came straight from his heart in his later years, Picasso’s intellectual preoccupation with art as a technical process, as the organization of space, form, line and color, took a retrospective analytical turn in a series of variations on masterpieces of the past. He translated Courbet’s realistic ‘,Girls on the Banks of the Seine” into his own terms of form. He took Velasquez’s ”Ladies in Waiting” as the subject of a series of studies which amounted to a kind of doctoral thesis on spatial-formal organization that linked the Renaissance with Cubism. He also wrung some revealing changes on Delacroix’s ”Women of Algiers”.
”Women of Algiers” is a famous and historically important painting, but in truth, it has not aged that well. After reading descriptions of coloristic lushness and exotic poetry in his painting, ”Women of Algiers” does not live up to its billing. Perhaps even a deflating experience. Delacroix’s revolution was tentative and restrained, remarkable only within a comparative sense within the context of his part of the nineteenth century. With his combination of serious study and ebullient play, Picasso refreshed our vision for the life that seemed to have died out of ”The Women of Algiers”; not so much transforming it as giving it a good shake to rid it of he dust and scare away the spiders.
The variations are extremely free, and sometimes may be partly humorous, as if Picasso were finding delight in poking a bit of benevolent fun at Delacroix and then balancing things by poking a bit of fun at himself. If this flavor of satire is involved, it is the kind of good satire that can be created only when the artist has a full understanding of himself along with others. The key to Picasso’s variations on ”The Women of Algiers” is an interplay of style and attitude that implies that Delacroix might have done things today as Picasso, for better or worse. Again, a marriage of the great tradition with Picasso’s own revolution.
”As Rudolf Arnheim explained, in reference to Picasso: “The creative process has systolic and diastolic stages. The artist condenses his material, eliminating unessentials, or paints an abundance of shapes and ideas, recklessly crowding the concept. Rather than grow consistently like a plant, the work often fluctuates between antagonistic operations.’ ”
From a study of Picasso’s etching, ”Minotauromachy :”Picasso was critical of the way men use their strength to have power, and he saw that women also used their bodies to conquer men and to have a hurtful power. Picasso asserted his own masculine strength, but that did not satisfy his whole self. Here, the bare-breasted woman picador draped brokenly over the frightened horse has failed in her desire to conquer the minotaur through body alone, because he wants what is represented by the young girl with the light: he wants to see, to know, and to like the world. The bull aspect of himself alone does not satisfy him. Even as he seems to shield his eyes from the light, he wants that light. He wants power and tenderness, body and thoughtful seeing together. In this etching Picasso affirms what Aesthetic Realism teaches: the only power that will satisfy a man is the power of good will. ”