Art Review: 'Picasso and the Masters' in Paris

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By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 16, 2008

PARIS There's no doubt that Pablo Picasso is one of the greatest artists of all time, and one of the most popular. Parisians and their guests have been queueing hour after hour this fall for a show called "Picasso and the Masters." It sets the modern master high up on a pedestal, alongside established geniuses such as El Greco, Velázquez, Poussin, Rembrandt, Delacroix, Manet and Renoir. And it allows him to colonize three of the city's most famous venues: This Picasso project stretches from the Louvre to the Musée d'Orsay to the Grand Palais.

But here's the truly peculiar thing about Picasso: Those of us most smitten with him don't necessarily admire all, or even most, of his individual pictures. What we love is how, across a seven-decade career filled with works that can be ugly or dumb or debauched, he constantly tests how pictures work and what they mean. "Picasso and the Masters" turns out to be not so much about Picasso the artist as Picasso the art historian.

Please don't stop reading. This Paris project is so important because it shows that Picasso the great painter could never have existed without his scholarly self.

Picasso's most intense confrontation with the past is on view at the Musée d'Orsay. There, a small suite of galleries has been devoted to Manet's great "Déjeuner sur l'herbe" ("lunch on the grass") and to 41 of Picasso's variations on it done in the early 1960s. They came late in the day: Picasso was nearing 80 when he launched into his Manet series, and had long since moved to the sidelines of contemporary art. But that only makes these pictures more effective. The aging master looks back on his own art and its precedents, then uses the comparison to spell out what had always made his paintings tick. His Manet variations feel like truly important lessons in Picassoism -- which, in a sense, is what all his pictures always were, only less explicitly.

When Manet's "Déjeuner" was unveiled in 1863, it became the keystone to almost all of later modern art: No earlier picture had played quite as fast and loose with the established rules of art. The "Déjeuner" already had lots in it that paved the way for Picasso: It's an almost Picassoid pastiche of the Old Masters (it cites landscapes and nudes by Raphael and Titian, and throws in quotes from classic still lifes and portraits). It plays spatial games that prefigure cubism (you can't quite spell out the space between its objects and figures, and there's confusion between the explicit flatness of the painted surface and the volume of the things it depicts). The scene's lighting is a deliberate affront (Manet mashes up the sunlight of the country and the gaslight of city life), and it has areas of almost random brushwork that don't have much to do with realism (they prefigure the arbitrary passages that fill in voids in cubist works). Most important, its subject matter -- two men in suits picnicking beside a stream with a pair of nearly naked ladies -- is so unexpected that you can read it almost any way you want.

Without the "Déjeuner," Picasso couldn't be. That must be another reason for these variations: Even at the end of an illustrious career, the insanely competitive old Spaniard needs to prove that he's as great as his precursor. That, in fact, his vision isn't that far from Manet's, once he's unpacked it.

In a series of meticulously dated paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures, Picasso pulls his long-gone rival apart.

In almost every image, the perennially sex-obsessed painter strips and exposes Manet's more demure nudes. Picasso wasn't one for suggestion when explicitness would do: He uses the multiple viewpoints invented in cubism to make sure that you can see breasts and behinds and crotches, all at the same time. Manet's scene seemed shockingly sexual to its original audience. Working a century later, Picasso was happy to revive that shock value.

Then he goes to work on the men. In paintings dated the 10th, 30th and 31st of July 1961, Manet's bearded, hat-wearing "student," at the right of the original picture, becomes Picasso as a naked youth: beardless and hatless, with the bulging eye that the painter gave himself in early self-portraits. In Manet's original, there's an implication that the painter is somehow present, at least in spirit, in the naughty scene -- that it's partly about what goes on between an artist and his models in the studio. Picasso's versions make that implication fact.

Maybe that's why, in so many of his "Déjeuner" pictures, Picasso gets rid of Manet's second man (he turns him into a tree in early riffs, then perhaps a totem pole). He doesn't like the competition.

But Manet's "student" doesn't always stand for Picasso. Early in his exploration of the world of the "Déjeuner," Picasso seems to decide that the original figure, with his cane, beard, black clothes and brimless hat, might also work as a bearded, hatted, black-robed Orthodox priest, with the cane becoming a crosier with which to lead his flock. On Feb. 29, 1960, all the trappings of a picnic are gone from the picture; we see that priest alone in primal nature, haranguing two shame-filled naked sinners.

Almost exactly one year later, the same figure has become a cardinal or pope, with robes and a skullcap in Vatican scarlet, keeping company with a pair of nudes. In still other pictures, the figure seems to have become a desert patriarch, complete with shepherd's crook and cloak, receiving naked supplicants by the edge of his oasis.

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