variations of destructive mockery

Overrated? Is it true that Picasso could pathologically destroy, or sabotage paintings of the old masters by sullying and subverting them? Is it simple playfulness,a prank,a mockery, a tribute, or an attempt to surpass the original? Strip Picasso of his lust, his competitiveness and streak of paranoia and what is left an sometimes be termed as pretty abominations.A complex figure to be sure…

---Picasso Rembrandt et Saskia. 1963. 162 x 130 cm. Oil on canvas---Read More:

By his mid 20’s Picasso had already established himself as an ingenious pilcher of ideas. Vulturing in on the like of Modigliani and others he was something of a repackager, but often without the traces of humanism and sentimentality of the older tradition.  Picasso  perceived the   inspiration of primitive Iberian sculpture, African masks and totems, which resulted in Demoiselles d’Avignon, the upheaval being on the non aesthetic content. The work itself was   finished inconsistently,  unresolved, but it broke into the other side:  the unknowns of the twentieth-century.  African primitism lost its ancient texture and became a convention known as Cubism; the tradition of perspective was abandoned and   mannerisms of the movement evolved into a crystalization of form onto plane with subject now subservient to new fields of color.

Its hard to pin down Picasso as a messenger of modernism. Certainly, Picasso and modernism’s antipathy towards art’s historical continuum seemed to appropriate the brothel as an aesthetic space and modernism’s exclusion and marginalization of the female gender signified a preoccupation in Picasso with bestiality that was intimately connected with the formal innovations. The connection between modern art and prostitution are not new, but Picasso’s intensity of Nietzchean exultation that saw creation and destruction fused had been heretofore unrepresented and gave Picasso his dominant position in the art world.

…Picasso invested too much in Cubism. When, after the brief decade of its life, 1908-1918, it proved to be a cul-de-sac, he could only escape its barren end by reverting to motifs of his Pink and Blue Periods and by turning to the classicism of antique Rome. It was for him the end of logical or progressive development and his career became a thing of fits and starts. Guernica of 1937, in which the horrors of war were reflected in the deliberate distortion and corruption of subjects and dismantled forms, was the only other forward leap to match the importance of the Demoiselles but even this new vocabulary lost its energy and, debased in repetition and subject, became an instrument of intellectual frivolity. He lived too long, and at the end, still covering as many as two canvases a day, was condemned to painting as a therapy, his mind empty of original ideas. Read More:

---Can anyone really support the view that his 44 variations on the theme of Velázquez’s Las Meninas (maids in waiting), painted in the autumn of 1957, should be studied and enjoyed for their insight and humanity — a demand made by Roland Penrose, Picasso’s adoring apologist, when he brought them to London in 1960? Do we understand the Velázquez better for Picasso’s destructive mockery?---Read More: image:

Picasso, who was born ten years later than Feininger (1881), also began as a “caustic humorist” — somewhat more caustic and malevolent than Feininger, who is playfully curious about human beings however much he regards them as comically absurd (certainly silly) — but, unlike Feininger, Picasso never left the “insolent caricature” behind, as his Cubist and Surrealist caricatures of human beings indicate. He rarely lost his sense of the ridiculous and grotesque, or his nastiness. He caricatured Velazquez and Rembrandt, suggesting that he envied them; envy is malevolent — a form of hatred, as Melanie Klein reminds us, or, as Freud said, an expression of the wish to destroy the other. Picasso’s pseudo-classical studio scenes of a god-like old master and naked young female model, ready to lose her virginity to his art, seem like images from an ongoing comic strip — and he did a comic strip viciously satirizing Franco (who deserved it, unlike Velazquez and Rembrandt) — and they are a mocking reprise of the beauty and beast relationship, and of classical beauty. As he said, “the beauties of the Parthenon, Venuses, nymphs, Narcissuses are so many lies” (1935). He preferred ugliness — the beauty of some of his figures is never more than skin-deep — and the human comedy, satirizing it, however tragic it sometimes was. Read More:


Schama:Radical remaker of art though he was, Picasso always balanced his iconoclastic instincts with a compulsive historicism. In 1936, he had agreed to become absentee director of the Prado, while Madrid was under Fascist siege. Constantly measuring himself for admission to the pantheon, Picasso evidently felt that taking down the masters also meant taking them on, and in his time he had mixed it up with, among others, Grünewald, Poussin, Cranach, Velázquez, Goya, and El Greco. At the end, though, it was Rembrandt of whom, according to his friend and biographer Pierre Cabanne, he spoke “ceaselessly.” The haunted self-portraits of those final years, all stubble and cavernous eye sockets, were surely prompted by the series of pitilessly truthful mirror images that Rembrandt executed in his last decade: a dispassionate scrutiny of time’s ruin recorded in heavy jowls and pouches. Read more

Picasso had a real gift for caricature, which blossomed when he was still a child, and it facilitated the development of his assertive relationship with the art of the past: the caricaturist does not submit tamely to higher authority. Although caricature involves ironic or satirical humour, it need not be, and frequently isn’t, driven by hostility, and in practice the targets of the majority of Picasso’s caricatures were people to whom he was attached by ties of love or friendship; and he did not exempt himself. It is worth remembering this when contemplating the caricatural aspect of the old-master variations of his maturity — the inflated size of Velazquez in the first version of Las Meninas or the jokey hands and feet of the picnickers in Luncheon on the Grass paintings, for instance. Imitation, adaptation, impersonation, elision, travesty, caricature: inasmuch as the commonly used expression “influenced by” implies passive acceptance of the source in question, it seems inappropriate for Picasso. His own exhortation, “Greco, Velazquez, INSPIRE ME!”, scrawled on an early sheet of drawings, sums up much better his position vis-à-vis the art of the past. Read More:

---Perhaps, in a way, we do, for Picasso has all too evidently misunderstood Velázquez’s use of a vertical setting for his figures, misunderstood the fundamental abstract nature of the composition and its clarity, misunderstood the subtle recessions so delicately implied in the shifts from light to shadow. Instead, eschewing colour and tone for the bleak monochrome range from white to black, Picasso condensed the lofty space of the original into a horizontal rectangle, cluttered it with detail from top to bottom on the left and emptied it of detail on the right (providing a blank but urgent repoussoir that destroys the slow pace of the original), exchanged Velázquez’s evident sympathy with court dwarfs for a gross caricature and swapped the great dozing mastiff for a cardboard sausage dog. This is insight? This is enchantment? This is virtuosity? So it may be for Penrose and the rest of what Augustus John damned as “the greatest snob following of our time”, but to the sane man it is arrant nonsense; these variations are worse than anything painted by John Bratby in his 1957 heyday.---Read More:

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Picasso, in his terrible, wonderful hurry to put another knot in the calendar––bunching up some of the threads of painting history while extending his dominion over another day––didn’t stop to tarry over hits or misses. There are a going to be a fair number of the latter among the flurry, especially given his reliance on shorthand motifs. That ubiquitous moonwoman profile glyph, which crops up often in the show, is a tip off. I am unashamed to say that I love MoMA’s antecedent “Girl Before a Mirror,” but something about that glyph is just plain icky, fairly begging to be swallowed whole as a logo of beauty, and it reminds one of the far more cringeworthy pandering of Picasso’s warmest essays in domestic bliss. Picasso paintings lacking in lust, paranoia, and competitiveness are usually prettified abominations….

---Picasso based this work on one of Rembrandt van Rijn's most revered etchings. He reinterpreted the religious scene as a secular one, depicting a theater filled with the people who had populated his life and art.---Read More:

…So much is made of Picasso’s reckoning with the past in his deconstruction of Dutch and Spanish old masters, whereas the revelation of the Guggenheim’s achronistically hung 2006 exhibition, Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso: Time, Truth, and History was how the well-engineered salvos of Miró and Gris crisply held their own beside Goya and Velasquez, and how fresh and potent Dalí’s early work seemed. The abundant Picassos, on the other hand, looked unintentionally out of place, undercooked in the company of their cussedly elegant forebears and rivals. The current show takes aim more at Hals and Rembrandt, and the perverse feeling I got was that Picasso had it backwards, channeling the anguished depths of the former and the shimmering felicity of the latter. InMousquetaire et femme à la fleur (4/18/1967) a version of a recurring lace-collared, mustachioed voyeur is scribbled with a certain self-regard. This rote construction feels inflated in its “mastery,” conjuring the ghastly specter of Dali doodles from his pitiful decline.Read More:

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All of these distinctions from the original Velázquez painting are relatively minor when we consider that the most important quality of the Velázquez original is lost – the aspect of being right there at that moment in that room. By use of the Cubist motif, Picasso severs that tie with the audience. Velázquez´s highly realistic painting makes you feel as if you were right there, but with the chaos portrayed by the cubist figures, this feeling is lost. The viewer now feels distant from the events portrayed in the picture. We can no longer relate to the infanta with all of the maids of honor surrounding her.

---As Susan Buck-Morss has pointed out (following Walter Benjamin), "Baudelaire makes modern, metropolitain prostitution 'one of the main objects of his poetry.' Not only is the whore the subject matter of his lyrical expression; she is the model for his own activity. The 'prostitution of the poet,' Baudelaire believed, was 'an unavoidable necessity.'" As Benjamin himself put it, "Baudelaire knew how things really stood for the literary man: As flâneur, he goes to the literary marketplace, supposedly to take a look at it, but already in reality to find a buyer" . Benjamin also observed that the prostitute held a special fascination for the modern artist because she was subject and object in one, both the seller of flesh and the fleshly commodity that was sold. This parallel between the situations of artist and prostitute was both fascinating and troubling for male writers and artists. For painters in particular, it was complicated by the relationship between artist and model, which recapulates in certain respects the situation of client and prostitute, and indeed, many models were also the sexual objects of their painters.---Read More:

If Picasso had copied the Velázquez painting perfectly, and a painter of his skill could quite easily do that, a conundrum would arise. How to tell the difference between the two? There would not be a way to distinguish between Picasso´s Las Meninas and Velázquez´s Las Meninas. If the physical images were the same, how could they differ? Yet, Picasso did not do that. By making small and not-so-small variations to a well-known physical image, Picasso proceeded to create a brand new spiritual image. An interesting duality then arises – Picasso copied a masterpiece, yet it was clearly not a copy because he distorted the physical aspects of the painting. Hence, Picasso created an entirely different image than the original Velázquez work. By varying some details of a masterpiece, Picasso took the risk of destroying what made the original so great. Or, as Picasso himself predicted, the copy could become an original in its own right. Read More:

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2 Responses to variations of destructive mockery

  1. Paul Krautter says:

    I love to read about Picasso and enjoyed all of your insights. The question remains, why is Picasso so popular, even now? I am an amateur artist, and am fascinated by Picasso. I guess I would like to be so admired, but certainly not at the price of being so screwed up as him.I try my hand at all styles of painting and art, realist to abstract; and I even love to doodle. Sometimes I like to slap some paint around. Sometimes as I look at a person or subject to paint I’ll see an image somewhat like a Picasso, totally anatomically distorted, but reflecting perhaps my true perception better than a “correct” image. Sometimes life is not beautiful. Sometimes things don’t make sense. I like to copy Rembrandt, and Reubans, and Michelangelo, and after long hours of this I become engrossed in thinking what their thoughts might have been as they worked. As I struggle to learn to paint I search long up and down back and forth for some elusive fundamental essence in their art which I want as well. There is something more than design and composition, tone, texture,color, draftsmanship, rhythm, flow, and meaning. There is a part of the soul of the artist being marked down for others to share. Sometimes it is ugly, sometimes beautiful. It can be judged as good or bad only in as far as the artist is good or bad, but it is the heart of art.

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