ART

An intimate view of a modern giant

Robert Enright July 1 1985
ART

An intimate view of a modern giant

Robert Enright July 1 1985

An intimate view of a modern giant

ART

Robert Enright

This summer Montreal has clearly become the cultural capital of Canada. After hosting the two-week-long Theatre Festival of the Americas last month, the city is currently presenting the Montreal International Jazz Festival as well as two distinctive museum shows, Ramses II and Pablo Picasso: Meeting in Montreal. The organizers of Meeting in Montreal say they are hoping that the exhibition will be the biggest success of Montreal’s magnificent season. Not only is the show exclusive to Montreal, it showcases 82 paintings—the majority of which have never been exhibited in North America—from the private collection of the artist’s widow, Jacqueline Picasso. On display at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art until Nov. 10, the splendid array of paintings provides what director Alexander Gaudieri calls

“a private vision, a keyhole peep” of the man whom many critics recognize as the 20th century’s greatest artist.

The show’s organizers are gambling on their ability to draw large audiences to the most recent of a series of major North American Picasso exhibitions. There have been three in the past five years, including a mammoth retrospective in May, 1980, of almost 1,000 works which filled the entire exhibition space of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. Meeting in Montreal’s paintings, including one by Picasso’s father, are less difficult to understand and certainly more intimate. Few people looking for the range of Picasso’s styles and subjects will be disappointed. Meeting in Montreal includes works from as early as 1895, when he was 14, until 11 months before he died at 91 in April, 1973. The broad selection brings together the entire cast of entertainers that Picasso claimed as his own—musketeers, amo-

rous nudes, bathers, matadors and pantomimists. Picasso is a benign ringmaster in those works, coaxing a private and endearing performance out of his favorite people.

Because of the personal nature of Jacqueline Picasso’s selection, the paintings are less flamboyant than those in the 1983 Guggenheim exhibition (The Last Years, 1963-1973) and do not display the heroic versatility that made the Museum of Modern Art retrospective both exhaustive and exhausting. In The Last Years exhibition, Picasso ran the gamut of extremes, from ecstasy to agony, revealing his intense ruminations on his own mortality. Meeting in Montreal, in contrast, is more balanced and reflects an artist freed from the dizzying theatre of his highly public life and art.

Among the first paintings that a viewer encounters are a robust self-portrait of the artist in a striped shirt, extending.dough-like fingers in front of him, and a gentle, inquisitive portrait of Jacqueline, who met Picasso in 1953 and became his second wife in 1961. Their presence sets the tone of the exhibition: as host and hostess they promise a guided tour through the Picassos’ domestic life. Paintings of the commonplace are sprinkled throughout the exhibition: a fish stew, a son peering over his father’s shoulder, an abstracted version of a rocking chair from the villa they called La Californie. The Montreal show functions less as an overview of Picasso’s long and passionate career than it does as a portrait of the artist as a diarist.

Picasso was obsessed with the physical world in his art. Even when he pulled that world apart and rearranged it in drastic ways, he invariably recorded the characteristic that made any person or object recognizable. In Woman Seated in Armchair (1938),

Dora Maar, Picasso’s mistress at the time, and the chair she sits in are broken up into a series of aggressive and disconnected shapes. But for all the painting’s ferocity, the mind’s eye reconnects the armchair parts and responds to the clarity of feature in Maar’s face which memorably transmits feminine vivaciousness.

Even the few paintings in the exhibition that are sentimental, mannered or perfunctory are still reminders of how central Picasso remains to painting in the 20th century.

There are works in the show that surpass the nervous immediacy and casual primitiveness of the most accomplished contemporary neo-expressionists. In Woman's Head (1943), a restructured woman’s face, with its manic grin and passive, round eyes, looks like a comical and slightly grotesque chess piece. Bust of Man (1972) captures the ambiguous attractions of the neo-expressionism that has become popular in the 1980s. It is a terrifying portrait done with a soft, cubist technique that pulls facial parts and perspectives in numerous directions. The fat, spatula-like fingers on one hand contrast with the crabbed claw which is the figure’s other hand.

When Picasso disappoints, it is because he does not equal his most aston-

ishing accomplishments—the revolutionary breakthrough of cubism, the mesmerizing surrealist works of the 1930s, the magnificent defiance of Guernica. A number of paintings in Meeting in Montreal fall far below that standard. Jacqueline, Seated With Her Cat (1964) is an overly cute monument to a style that Picasso could achieve with his eyes closed. But there is also a clutch of paintings that make clear his incomparable intelligence and virtuosity: the masterfully simple Reclining Woman (1929); the sensuous nudes of Marie Thé-

rèse Walter from the 1930s; the brutal inventory of erogenous zones in Couple (1967).

Those paintings demonstrate how Picasso revolutionized the modern way of seeing. In the process, he went from iconoclast to deity in the view of many critics, seemingly without any stops in between. In Meeting in Montreal, through the grace of his widow, he is able to step down from the Olympian throne upon which art history has placed him and breathe some common air. The results are not as heady as the more comprehensive retrospectives, but the intimate insights into the giant of 20th-century art are amply rewarding and invigorating in themselves.