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.

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