Pablo Picasso lived through the Spanish Civil War and World War I and World War II. While living in occupied Paris, the Gestapo broke into his home and pointed his Guernica mural, asking, “Did you do that?” To which he famously replied, “No, you did.”
These experiences are reflected in this year’s Melbourne Winter Masterpieces series at the National Gallery of Victoria, which features The Picasso Century – a monumental showcase of more than 80 works by one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, supplemented by more than 100 works by artists, poets and intellectuals who were his peers.
In the first room of the exhibition, black and white images of men in uniform digging trenches are pasted between a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire: “Wounded in the head, trepanned under chloroform / Having lost my best friends in the dreadful conflict… I judge this long quarrel between tradition and invention / Order and adventure.
In the next room, a small painting by Pablo Picasso depicts the death of his friend, the painter Carles Casagemas, who committed suicide in a Parisian restaurant after being rejected by Picasso’s former lover and friend, Germaine Gargallo, on who he first pointed the gun at. In the painting, there is a bullet hole in the temple of Casagemas. His head is illuminated by a candle with broad touches of yellow, orange and blue.
The longer we observe the painting – standing where Picasso once stood as he imagined his friend’s death – the more we participate in the life of the painting, quietly watching the color of Casagemas’ water-stained face seem to drown. He recalls the line from Hamlet’s soliloquy: “To die, to sleep; / To sleep, perhaps to dream – /… For in this sleep of death what dreams can come, / When we have shaken this death spiral, / Must give us a break…”
While Apollinaire described the pendulum between invention and tradition, Picasso worked with an impression of innocence. While attending an exhibition of children’s works, Picasso once said: “When I was the age of those children, I could draw like Raphael: it took me many years to learn to draw like those kids.”
He understood that in its purest form, representation was about the exploitation and expression of feeling. Art becomes a childlike experience unrelated to social constructs or the pretensions of the art world. Trying to understand the meaning of its fractured images, we are fascinated, discovering something about ourselves in light of its pure mindscape.
In whose image do we see ourselves? Why do we react the way we do, emotionally or physically? Where do these reactions come from? How might we express these intangible reflections to others? What will this expression communicate? What happens to the ricochet?
“The image is not something innocent”, explains Didier Ottinger, curator of the exhibition and deputy director of the Center Pompidou at the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris. “It’s not something you can do like that. You must be aware that you are doing something special.
He takes a moment to reflect and suggests that this be explored in a new book, wizard picasso, by Diana Widmaier-Picasso, Picasso’s granddaughter, which examines how Picasso obsessively collected everyday objects and gave them meaning. “Picasso was from southern Spain. [He was] very superstitious. His painting is linked to this superstition,” says Ottinger. “For him, a work of art is not something that hangs on the wall like an object of decoration. He has strength. It interacts with the viewer from its context with its context. It’s powerful.
Discuss magic and animism in Totem and Taboo, Sigmund Freud wrote: “People rightly speak of the ‘magic’ of art and compare artists to magicians. But the comparison is perhaps more significant than it claims. There is no doubt that art did not begin for art. It originally functioned in the service of drives that are now mostly extinct. And among them we can suspect the presence of many magical goals.
Given this little-known aspect of Picasso’s psyche, it is perhaps unsurprising that he joined the Surrealism movement in the 1920s. André Breton’s 1924 Surrealist manifesto declared that the movement celebrated “psychic automatism” while emphasizing “the omnipotence of the dream”. “Suddenly, with surrealism, he opened up to a new horizon which was the unconscious, desire, violence,” says Ottinger.
In 2015, a research team led by psychologist Verena Graupmann found that subjects who had contemplated death found more comfort and meaning in surreal art. Graupmann concludes: “It corresponds to the idea that – although at first glance difficult to decode – surrealist art offers access to reassurance on another level of understanding.”
How to trace these different levels of understanding? In Kalgoorlie, residents of the Amana Living retirement home can take part in an arts initiative called Project Picasso. The program helps residents with dementia stimulate their minds and memories by producing artwork for display. The process helps relocate unseen feelings. Towards the end of the program, the center organizes a Project Picasso exhibition. Recently, resident Laura Baetsen presented a piece where she painted on one side a photograph of an ancient mask in teal color with gold detailing and Aztec designs. The mask’s left cheek is flooded with Laura’s thick paint – reflecting the real mask like an infinite metaphysical mirror, her mind’s eye distilling its reflection.
Baetsen’s work questions the truth of the mask, which becomes double-sided, wondering if it is behind masks that we can express who we really are or, on the contrary, if the art on the canvas is a deconstruction of the artist’s mask.
In surrealism, as in psychoanalysis, there are no borders. The puzzle of the mind unfolds through fragments of memory, nostalgia, fantasy, fear, desire and dream. Imagination and reality merge in the same atmosphere. Our emotions become the tool with which we see ourselves.
At the NGV, in a room dedicated to the period of Picasso’s surrealism, hangs Corrida: death of the toreador woman, a work of oil paint and pencil on wood representing a bullfight. The arena is pale, with soft contrast and a pastel palette of sky blue and carnation pink. A naked woman is lying on the back of a white horse, swept away by the blow of the bull. His head merges with the face of the angry bull. It is a violent image of death made sensual by color and whimsical by dancing gestures.
As spectators, we watch Picasso throw sex and death into his arenas. The animal and the human fall, out of breath, while his transfiguration of life becomes a paid staging. The colors evoke a vision of joy and passion in stark contrast to earlier pieces from his blue period, which left bruises all over his melancholic work. In Freudian theory, the death drive is opposed to Eros: he speaks of a “separation of the death drives from the life drives”. Picasso distills them together until we are left with vascularity and flecks of lavender smoke. The forces that clash in stride, a pastel but dark paradox, are reduced to “the little death», the brief experience after orgasm – equated with death.
The exhibition ends with a three-channel video installation by Rineke Dijkstra, I see a woman crying (woman crying). The work features close-up images of nine children aged 11 to 12 reacting to crying woman The painting. While unveiling the ritual of the school art trip, Dijkstra demonstrates what she describes as the “uninhibited quality” of children. We never see the board.
“Maybe it’s a soul entering his mouth,” said a young boy with a shaved head. “Maybe Picasso just wanted to make a colorful picture and he drew it as if it was how they felt inside. He painted how people felt.
In the final room of the exhibition, a Picasso quote on the wall reads: “It’s up to the public to see what they want to see.” It takes a magician to hold the mirror.
The Picasso Century is presented at NGV International, Melbourne until October 9th.
MUSIC Leaps and bounds music festival
Venues across Melbourne, June 24 to July 24
Heath Ledger Theatre, Perth, 24 June to 2 July
CABARET Adelaide Cabaret Festival
Venues across Adelaide, through June 25
EXPOSURE Gay Hawkes: The House of Desire
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart, until August 28
EXPOSURE Rebirth is needed
Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, until July 9
FESTIVAL Long live Sydney
Venues across Sydney, through June 18
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 18, 2022 under the headline “Modernist Sorceries”.
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