Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Picasso is still in Sydney

The marvellous exhibition of masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso in Paris, remains in Sydney until 25th March. There's still time to see it! It's cheaper to schlepp to Sydney than to Paris. Plus you won't have to speak French.
I didn't have room to mention all my favourites from the exhibition last month, so here are a few more pictures for all the Picasso-fans out there.

I love the powerful exuberance of Two Women Running on the Beach (1922). This was during the period when Picaso returned to classicism after the dark oppressiveness of WW1. The figures of the two women are robust and joyful, like the couple in Village Dance, which he painted in the same year.

They run in pure abandon, holding hands. Their hair flows in the wind and their loose Grecian dresses fall off their shoulders unheeded. The sea and summer sky are brilliant blue: life is good!

Life was not so good in 1938. Picasso, strongly opposed to the rise of fascism, was exiled from Spain during the civil war. He realised that the Fascists and Nazis posed a threat to all of Europe and he was angry and frustrated by the French and British policies of appeasement and non-intervention. Neville Chamberlain didn't impress Picasso at all, waving that bit of paper he got from Hitler on his sucking-up expedition to Munich.

Picasso made his point with "The Farmer's Wife". The recumbent woman represents the countries of Europe, sleeping while Spain is destroyed by the Fascists and their German allies. But for a bit of faint pink about her head and torso, it is monochrome, like his harrowing Guernica and The Charnel House. The nude, sleeping farmwife is surrounded by chooks: a hen perched on her hip, three little chicks pecking in the foreground, while at her feet the rooster is flapping his wings and crowing aggressively, in a futile attempt to awaken her.

The usually complaisant Marie-Therese Walter was the model for this picture. Since she became his mistress in 1927, when she was 17 and he 45, he painted her many times, delightfully tender and joyous portraits, emphasising her rounded figure and blonde hair. By the time she moselled for The Farmer's Wife, they had been together for eleven years and she had borne him a daughter.

She always refused to marry him, becaue she realised that she would always come second to his art, and that he was not monogamous by nature. There were always other women. She remained loyal to him even after their affair ended. She hanged herself in 1977, four years after Picasso's death.

Marie-Therese did not like The Farmer's Wife. She said at the time "… look how he uses me in ‘The Farmer’s Wife’. I don’t like to analyze his work, especially when I’m the subject. I can’t avoid insight: He is using me as a symbol of European complacency…during the Spanish Civil War… he’s put me flabby on my back, a grimacing, grumpy woman who’s just been screwed by a rooster who’s bit a hole in my navel …. I still love Picasso but don’t want to marry him.”

And who's to blame her? Nobody wants to be a flabby, grumpy, grimacing old bag with rooster issues.

Picasso and his bosom friend Carlos Casagemas were still teenagers when they left their native Spain and travelled to Paris together to paint and study. They immersed themselves in the Paris of artists, cafés and the Bohemian life despite their very limitd means. Most of the time they ahd no money at all, but Picasso (like Toulouse-Lautrec before him) painted the ladies of the night and did murals on the brothel walls in exchange for their services.

Casagemas was not such a steady patron of these establishments as Picasso, because he had a bit of what the late-night ads on my TV call "erectile dysfunction." Probably nothing that a bit of counselling, a cup of tea and a couple of Viagras couldn't cure, but we all know how teenagers agonise - embarrassment and anxiety would have made the whole situation worse.

Then Casagemas became infatuated with Germaine, a dancer. Sadly, she soon dumped him, probably because the demonstrations of his affection didn't come up to expectations. As it were. This sent Carlos into a depression: he drank, he used morphine and he clung to Picasso for support. It seemed like a good idea at the time to take Casagemas home to Spain, give him a chance to get over it. They stayed with Picasso's family and everyone did their best, but Casagemas' self-pity got worse and he clung to Picasso like an emotional leech.

The two boys were only 19 or 20 at the time, not an age known for wisdom or patience. Picasso got fed up with all the whinging and told Casagemas to pull himself together and get on with it. Casagemas went back to Paris, where he resumed hanging round Germaine. At a café with her and several other friends one night, he pulled out a handgun, fired a shot at Germaine which missed and then shot himself in the right temple.

Picasso was overcome with grief and guilt. It was his turn to fall into a state of depression: he had fought with his family who wrre upset at his bohemian lifestyle and lack of a steady job, he was penniless, disillusioned and generally sorry for himself. He didn't snap out of this for the next four years, during which time his work was characterised by a melancholy, blue monochrome palette. From the traumatic suicide of Casagemas, Picasso's Blue Period was born.

Picasso painted several works in an attempt to exorcise his pain and guilt over the death of Casagemas. The Death of Casagemas (1901) is a posthumous homage to his tragic friend, and in this picture I discern overtones of van Gogh's style in the greens and yellows of the face and candle, and the anxious, staccato brush strokes surrounding the flame.

In the same year, he painted The Burial of Casagemas, which reminds me very much of El Greco's Burial of the Count of Orgaz. I was very young and the Orgaz burial made a lasting impression on me when I first saw it in the great church of San Tomé in Toledo. The young Picasso would have drawn upon a similar impression when he painted Casagemas' burial. In the lower half of the painting, he surrounds Casagemas with loving family and friends at the graveside, and in the upper half, his soul ascends to Heaven amid a joyful gathering.

Picasso seemed finally to accept the death of Casagemas when he painted La Vie (Life) in 1903. In the painting, he winds back the clock, giving the Casagemas story a happy ending instead of a tragic one. Picasso has given Casagemas a female figure leaning lovingly against him, and placed him in a family context. He points to the baby in the older woman's arms, and he steps forward as if into a new life. Some art historians see the upraised finger as a symbol of his regained virilty. La Vie was the end of the Blue Period - Picasso now seemed to put his melancholy state behind him and move on.

But the Casagemas trauma reared its head again in 1923, when Picasso's friend Ramon Pichot died, near the anniversary of Casagemas' death. This unhappy event opened old wounds, especially since Pichot's wife was the very Germaine for love of whom Casagemas committed suicide. Picasso was inspired to paint Three Dancers, a chilling depiction of this tragic love triangle, in the Surrealist style with which he was experimenting at the time. The crazed figure on the left in this macabre dance is Germaine, on the right is Pichot, and the ghostly central figure, with arms outstreched as on a crucifix, is the unhappy Casagemas. The painting is at the same time a savage commentary on the ballet, expressing Picasso's anger and pain over the acrimonious breakdown of his marriage to the dancer Olga Kokhlova.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Picasso at the Art Gallery of NSW

Tax collectors are universally disliked, but we have them to thank for the magnificent exhibition of works by Picasso that is on display at the Art Gallery of NSW until 25th March.

Picasso often proclaimed: "I am the greatest Picasso collector in the world." And so he was. He hated to part with his work. At the time of his death in 1973, there were 70,000 of this prolific artist's works preserved in his various studios and warehouses. In lieu of inheritance tax, his heirs gave the French State first refusal of thousands of artworks in all mediums, plus photographs, documents and personal correspondence. When his widow died in 1986, the taxman scored another two thousand Picassos in lieu of death duties. (Not to mention 900 masterworks by his fellow-artists, from his personal collection.) The Musée Picasso in Paris was set up to house this collection, which constitutes a pictorial "diary", a chronology of the development of his style.

A selection from the Musée Picasso is on loan to the NSW gallery while the museum is undergoing renovations. They represent every period in the artist's career and every medium that he used. They are chronologically arranged in ten rooms.  I'll just touch on a few of the highlights and urge you to go and see for yourself.

The first room contains some of Picasso's early drawings and examples from his so-called Blue and Rose Periods. The one that stood out for me was the portrait of the brothel-keeper Celestine, an old woman with a milky eye. She looks forlorn and isolated in her dark blue cloak. The painting is almost a monochrome in its tones of blue-grey, the only touch of colour a faint blush on one cheek.

The next room contains works from the three years 1906-1909, when Picasso was fascinated by tribal art. The African and Pacific influences are evident here. There are several sketches and studies for Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, the controversial masterpiece that he painted in 1907. The savage power of the completed work is already palpable in the angular features of the women in the sketches. You can see why Picasso called the painting "an exorcism".

I liked the bronze bust of his mistress Fernande Olivier: it is so much like the cubist portrait of her which we saw at the NGV as part of the European Masters exhibition a few years ago. It is one of my favourite pictures.

We move on to the period when Picasso worked in tandem with Georges Braque, developing the cubist style, which combines several possible views of a three-dimensional object in one image.

Picasso called Cézanne "my only master" and said that he had spent years studying his work. It shows! The influence of Cézanne is clearly discernible in these proto-cubist works, especially in some of the earlier still lifes and landscapes.

The limited colour palette, mostly browns and greys, focuses attention on the shapes, the interlacing lines and shaded planes. Here are also a number of his collages, a new kind of sculpture incorporating all kinds of materials into wall-mounted paintings, from newsprint to sheet iron.

Picasso returned to classicism in the early 20s, when he befriended Serge Diaghilev and designed sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes. He also married a Ballet Russes ballerina, Olga Koklova. In this room I was enchanted by his elegant portrait of Olga, and I was thrilled to see the original portrait, so well-known in reproduction, of his son Paul as Harlequin.

Picasso really looked at the works of other great artists, and he wasn't shy to reference them - I loved his Village Dance, so clearly a homage to Renoir!

In the fifth room there are a number of female nudes, including The Reader and Nude in a Garden, for both of which Marie-Thérèse Walter was the model. Picasso met her when she was barely seventeen, and I love his many paintings of her: they are instantly recognisable for their tender pastels and lyrical curves, in contrast to his portraits of his other mistress, the photographer Dora Maar. Dora, a confident professional woman, is always depicted in geometrical planes, spiky shapes and strong colours. (Think of the NGV's Weeping Woman, which is a portrayal of Dora's grief at the death of her father.)

Picasso tried to keep his affaire with Marie-Thérèse secret and did "disguised portraits" of her, one of which is also on display here. It purports to be a Still Life On A Pedestal Table, but there is the signature fall of her blonde hair, the defining youthful colours, and the sinuous curves of various body parts doubling as still life objects. When she became pregnant, the cat was out of the bag and divorce from Olga followed.

Dora Maar documented day by day the painting of "Guernica", Picasso's monumental work depicting the bombing of that town during the Spanish Civil War. This series of photographs is also on display.

During WW2, Picasso continued to live and paint in Paris, harassed to some extent by the Gestapo, who kept a watchful eye on him. During this period and into the early 1950s, his work contains many symbols of death and violence: skulls, bulls, soldiers.

His harrowing Massacre in Korea references Goya's The Third of May and also reminds me of Manet's Execution of the Emperor Maximilian.

Come to think of it, I suppose Manet must have had a good look at the Goya before he painted Maximilian, just as he had a good look at Titian's Venus of Urbino before he got out the Winsor and Newtons to paint Olympia.

Directors remake other directors' movies, authors use other writers' plots, painters reference each others' works. And so they should. It is so interesting to look at a film, a book or a painting and detect echoes or a different arrangement of earlier ones that you enjoyed. But that is another story.

After he married the potter Jacqueline Roque in the mid-fifties, Picasso's work took a more cheerful turn. They moved to the south of France, where he started to paint with Matisse, much like he did with Braque many years earlier. The Matisse influence is evident in the lambent light and vivid colours of his work during this period.

Next time you are in Sydney, have a look at Nude in a Rocking Chair, one of the treasures of the NSW Art Gallery's permanent collection. The clear bright colours and background palm tree clearly defines it as part of this Cannes oeuvre.

Picasso painted until the end of his life at age 92. Many of his late works were inspired by other great artists: the best known is probably his series of Las Meninas after Velasquez. In the last room, I was delighted by his Déjeuner Sur L'herbe after Manet.

I felt very privileged to have been able to see this collection - that magnificent old Spaniard was so prolific, in so many media, and his work packs such an emotional punch! He is truly the Mohammed Ali of the art world: he floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. When the last trumpets sound and the saints go marching in through those pearly gates, Pablo Picasso will be leading the artists.

Monet's Garden and Fairweather's Island

Monet's Garden at Giverney

When I popped this DVD in and sat back with a cup of tea and an anticipatory smile, I expected to see lots of Monet's paintings, intercut with shots of the bits of garden that inspired them. Instead, I saw a very interesting and informative film about the garden itself, and as the camera roamed the familiar settings, I saw the paintings in my head rather than on the screen.

The film follows the life of the garden through a year, from the first spring flowers, through the riotous summer colours, to the winter season when the garden closes to the public and the eight gardeners do their essential mantenance.

There are fascinating interviews with artists, gardeners and members of the Monet family. I liked the Japanese landscape gardener who explained that the famous bridge is not really the right shape for a Japanese bridge, and in any case Japanese bridges are not green, but red for contrast!

The garden is in two parts: the flower garden and the water garden which was only built later. Monet was a passionate gardener and created the garden with great consideration and an artist's eye for colour and design.

The gardeners among our members will especially like this DVD.
Fairweather Man
"Fairweather Man" is an intimate portrait of the life and work of Ian Fairweather, an eccentric, reclusive, driven artist. It runs for 52 minutes, bringing his story to life through letters, diaries, archival footage and interviews. I particularly liked the inclusion of so many of his paintings: we are able to see his talent unfold, the development of his oeuvre reflecting the influence of events in his life and places he lived.

Abandonment as a child and the horrors of active service in World War I gave him a good nudge toward a habit of reclusive introspection. He could not settle, and China became the first stop in a life of wandering. Chinese culture had an overriding and lifelong influence on his art.

At 60 years of age, Fairweather experienced an epiphany. He built himself a flimsy raft and set sail from Darwin on a foolhardy, death-defying trip across the Timor Sea. For 16 days he drifted in a semi-conscious and hallucinogenic state. It is said that before that journey he was an extremely talented artist, but afterwards he became an extraordinary one.

For the last 20 years of his life Fairweather lived a hermit-like existence in a grass hut on Bribie Island, off the coast of Queensland. It was there that he created his greatest work, despite the primitive and unhygienic conditions. When he died in 1974, Australia lost a great painter, but you can see some of his best work at the Ian Potter Gallery any time you like. Go and treat yourself, it's free!

Pinups and Prophesies

The pin-up is interesting as a portrait genre, peculiar to the Second World War.

This DVD traces the evolution of the Australian pin-up, through interviews with some of the girls who posed for the pictures and some of the servicemen for whom they were true morale-boosters.

The film also gives a fascinating insight into the different social values and mores of those more innocent times.

Man Magazine first hit the newsstands in 1936 - it was based on the American Esquire, and featured excellent fiction and articles, cartoons and artwork. Some of Australia’s best writers and artists contributed to it.

At two shillings, it was a bit more upmarket than its sixpenny cousin, Pix Magazine, established two years later. Pix, as its name implies, was heavily illustrated and it featured a mix of human-interest stories, fashion and politics. Both magazines became more risqué in later years, but at the beginning of the war they were very much family fare.

The magazines ran "Beach Girl" competitions to encourage the idea of healthy outdoor living, with readers invited to send in their photographs. The chosen bathing beauties had their pictures published, captioned with their names and addresses! See what I mean by "more innocent times"?

Many of the girls received letters from servicemen abroad, and penpal correspondence flourished. One of the former pinup girls tells how devastated she was when one whole platoon, whose mascot she was, was wiped out. She had never met any of the Diggers, but the letters she exchanged with them had forged close friendships: they confided in her and she felt protective of them.

As the war progressed, so the pinup evolved from pretty picture to propaganda material. The film uses archival footage, artwork and interviews to capture the spirit and mores of the time. I particularly liked the interviews with the men and women, now in their seventies and eighties, who were pinups and soldiers at the time, with flashback photos of how they looked then. No question, good bone structure tells! Those lovely girls are lovely old ladies now.

The film runs for 52 minutes and is narrated by Claudia Karvan.

This film was made when The Da Vinci Code was a best seller. Waldemar Januszczak gets on the bandwagon by seeking coded messages by Michelangelo in the frescoes of the Sustine chapel.

His tortuous theory drags in the ark of the covenant, the invention of the printing press and the prophet Zachariah among others. I don't know why he didn't throw in alien abductions, Elvis and the Loch Ness monster while he was about it. The burden of his message seems to be that Michelangelo prophesied the massacre of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians at Waco in 1993.

Anyway, ignore all that silly stuff and you are left with a very interesting history of the Sistine Chapel. The Della Rovere family produced two Popes: Sixtus IV, who built the chapel, and Julius II, who decorated it. This is their story.

The history of the papal battles and politics of the time is quite fascinating. It is not only our own building industry that has trouble coming in on time and on budget!

Mr Januszczak had access to the Sistine Chapel during cleaning and restoration operations, so we get right up close to the frescoes, on the scaffolding of the workers. It is interesting that the surface of the ceiling is not smooth, but rather rough undulations. He points out the obscene gesture that one of the little cherubs is making: a naughty joke by the painter - it is too small to be seen from any distance. It is also really thrilling to see Michaelangelo's mucky thumbprints on the edges.

Mr Januszczak knows his subject and when he is not airing his weird theories, he is very entertaining and informative.

He puts Michaelangelo's position among the other artists of the time in perspective, and we see some lovely works by other Renaissance painters and sculptors, notably the magnificent Raphael portrait of Julius II (above). Michaelangelo lived to 89. Thirty years elapsed between his painting the first and last parts of the Chapel.