Picasso on the 50th anniversary of his death – how good was he, really? (Video: Alla Dreyvitser/The Washington Post)

How good, really, was Pablo Picasso?

The exemplary modern artist died 50 years ago this month, and we’re still trying to clean up his mess

14 min

Blue Picasso, pink Picasso, cubist Picasso, society Picasso, surreal Picasso, ceramist Picasso, late Picasso. Picasso in his underwear, Picasso in a bow tie. Harlequin Picasso, bullfight Picasso, the poets’ Picasso, the GIs’ Picasso. Anti-fascist Picasso, communist Picasso, peace dove Picasso. Prankster Picasso, heartsick Picasso, lecherous Picasso.

Yes, Pablo Picasso was all over the place. He died 50 years ago this month at 91, and we’re still trying to clean up his mess.

Where America’s celebrated postwar artists — Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Roy Lichtenstein — had the good manners to settle on a tidy, signature style and stick to it, Picasso was the ultimate shapeshifter. As an artist — and as a man — he was so astonishingly manifold that we are left with little choice, it can seem, but to reduce him to a kind of sign. Picasso equals protean genius.

It’s no longer necessary that he connect in people’s minds with any actual art. It’s enough that he stands for that bigger thing: unfettered creativity. In fact, it’s better. A clear line connects Picasso’s description of his pictures as “a sum of destructions” and the capitalist mantra of “creative destruction” and the onetime internal Facebook motto “Move fast and break things.” Sublimating Picasso’s oeuvre into an essence of pure creativity certainly makes it easier for the marketing arms of corporations to invoke his name and for museums to sell tickets.

This year, in Europe and North America, around 50 exhibitions have been organized under the umbrella “Celebration Picasso 1973-2023,” an initiative with the support of the French and Spanish governments. Some will try to solve the problem of the Spaniard’s extraordinary productivity by focusing on one year in his life (“Picasso 1906: The Turning Point” at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid) or even just three months (“Picasso in Fontainebleau” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art). Others — too many to list — will tame him by matching his works with those of other artists (El Greco, Max Beckmann, Nicolas Poussin, Joan Miró), with writers (Gertrude Stein) or with lovers (Fernande Olivier, Françoise Gilot). In June, the Brooklyn Museum will mount a show, co-curated by the comedian Hannah Gadsby, looking at Picasso through a feminist lens, placing him beside such artists as Cindy Sherman, Ana Mendieta and Kiki Smith.

What will people see in all these shows? How will Picasso’s actual works affect them? How good will the Spaniard come out smelling? That last question sounds impertinent, but it’s worth asking if we care about art, as opposed to branding.

I was recently at dinner with a celebrated artist and his wife, a physician. Thinking ahead to this essay, I raised the subject of Picasso. “Obviously, he was amazing,” I said to the physician. “But are there any Picassos you really love? Any of his works that sit with you, that feel close to your heart? Because I sometimes struggle to think of any.” Her husband, the artist, overheard from across the room and said simply, “Dozens. There are dozens.”

He was right, of course. And it is artists, above all, for whom Picasso has been an endless source of ideas, envy and inspiration. A critic trying to question or undermine this is bound to sound foolish, presumptuous and glib.

And yet … questioning Picasso’s greatness is part of a venerable critical tradition. Despite the underlying consensus, there have been many productively provocative naysayers. The ones that linger most in my mind are John Berger’s 1965 book “The Success and Failure of Picasso,” Adam Gopnik’s 1996 New Yorker essay “Escaping Picasso” and Gadsby’s brief, comedic takedown of the artist in her Netflix documentary “Nanette.” All three recognized Picasso’s importance, acknowledged his brilliance. But each was willing, in different ways, to question the accepted wisdom by making connections between Picasso’s character and his art.

A narrow imagination

That Picasso was misogynistic is not really in doubt. Yes, he was electrifying company, and, yes, many intelligent and formidable women fell in love with him. But again and again (the record is clear), he treated them abominably. Misogyny is the symptom of a narrow, thwarted imagination. Picasso’s intelligence was immense and wide-ranging, but he made his art narrower, less interesting, by turning so much of it into a bizarrely obsessive index to the churning hysteria of his ambivalence toward women.

Reviewers of successive volumes of John Richardson’s “A Life of Picasso” found themselves unable to ignore the issue. The writer Siri Hustvedt, reviewing the fourth and final volume, spoke of Picasso’s “malignant narcissism,” adding that, despite his brilliance, “the emotional repertoire of the work, especially as he aged, is far narrower than often perceived.”

Responding to the third volume, Hilary Spurling, in the Guardian, noted that “large stretches of this book read like a code-breaker’s manual” (for interpreting Picasso’s habit of using his art to settle scores and scatter sex organs). The “emotional core” of the volume, she wrote, was “Richardson’s detailed report, horrific and dispassionate, of repeated pictorial assaults as affection seeped out of Picasso’s portraits of [his wife] Olga [Khokhlova] to be replaced by rancour and rage.” Gadsby put it most succinctly in “Nanette.” Acknowledging the importance of cubism, she nonetheless blasted Picasso for his lack of imagination. He “just put a kaleidoscope filter on his penis,” she said.

Richardson, who died in 2019, had a credible theory that Picasso saw himself as an exorcist or shaman. The idea was grounded in the artist’s childhood and in things he later said about his 1907 breakthrough, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” The Spaniard was interrogating, Richardson argued, “the atavistic misogyny toward women that supposedly lurks in the psyche of every full-blooded Andalusian male.” “What this seems to mean,” concluded Spurling in her review, “is that hatred of women fueled many of Picasso’s greatest works.”

It’s worth noting the semantic slide here from the idea that Picasso was interrogating misogyny to Spurling’s conclusion that his work was fueled by it. Clearly they overlap, but there is also a difference. The age-old war between the sexes is, after all, a legitimate subject of art. Artworks that powerfully express sexual enmity (and Picasso’s oeuvre is full of them) can be an antidote to the complacencies of, for instance, male feminists who think they have it all figured out and fail to acknowledge what Germaine Greer called the “radical, tragic and overwhelming” nature of gender conflict and “the utter inability of either sex to comprehend the other.”

Picasso’s presentation of the conflict, in works like “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” can be so confronting that we feel the papery veil we refer to as “civilization” shriveling before our eyes.

But then, it can also become incredibly tedious. Ten years before Spurling’s review, Gopnik, in a New Yorker essay prompted by the publication of the second volume of the Richardson biography, noted that the trouble with so many Picasso works “was less the misogyny of the subjects” — pervasive as that was — “than the banality of their articulation.”

This, I think, is spot on. Picasso’s pictorial pyrotechnics can be astounding. But the emotional core — or an emotional core that we might care about — often seems absent. Gopnik’s essay was hugely controversial at the time. But a quarter century on, it looks courageously clearheaded, and in many ways, the world has come around to the heretical position he advanced.

One of Gopnik’s most contentious claims was that Picasso’s best work was confined to the “fifteen-year period centered on cubism, the First World War, and its immediate aftermath.” Surrounding this high period, he wrote, “was a vast sea of kitsch, an almost bottomless vulgarity of imagination, an ugliness that was not the honest Medusa’s-head ugliness of modernism but the glaring ugliness of falseness and sentimentality.” “What made cubism great,” he declared, “is not that it gave Picasso a means of self-expression, but that it acted as a barrier to self-expression — pretty much the only one he ever met.”

The final claim chimes amusingly with T.S. Eliot’s influential theory that great art was impersonal. Instead of expressing the poet’s personality, he argued, poetry (or art) should be thought of as an “escape from personality.” (“But of course,” he added ominously, “only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”) It’s easy to say, following Eliot, that we should separate art from the moral failings of its creators. But it’s difficult for most of us to abandon the idea that art can, in fact, be an expression of inner life, and often is. With certain artists — and Picasso was one of them — the connection is so powerful that it is self-evident.

So what happens if we are turned off, appalled or simply bored by what we surmise of an artist’s inner life?

Embracing conflict

It’s obviously a problem. But are there really no great Picassos outside that 15-year period? Did nothing else he made connect with valuable meanings, emotional depth, truth? Gopnik told me by email that he has since moderated his views, which he now considers “not altogether wrong but terribly overstated.” But I think his argument back then was salutary. It is “astonishing,” as he added in the email, “how fast a critical consensus can shift; in 1996 to say such things was shocking; now only the opposite would.”

I’ve always found it hard to see Picasso’s best work clearly. I suspect one problem is my emotional bias toward Matisse, his great rival. Another is my sense that the early work, especially the Blue Period, was maudlin, while much of the late work was self-indulgent. A third obstacle is the sheer number of Picassos out there: He made around 13,500 paintings, 100,000 prints, 700 sculptures and more than 4,000 ceramics. There are only so many times you can see Picasso use the same notation for a nose to switch a frontal portrait to a side profile before the trick feels hammy. Remove the calcified rhetoric — Picasso the “genius,” the “geyser of creativity” — and you’re left with a body of work whose human meanings can seem disappointingly thin.

But I’ve also reviewed probably a dozen Picasso exhibitions over the years. And I have to admit that each time I’ve been forced to contemplate his achievement honestly and up close, with his weaker things weeded out by discerning curators, I’ve come away shaking my head in wonder.

You don’t have to wait for the next great exhibition. We’re fortunate: American museums hold many of Picasso’s finest works. Cleveland has “La Vie.” Chicago has “The Old Guitarist.” The National Gallery of Art has “Lady With a Fan.” Philadelphia has the early “Self-Portrait With Palette.” The Met has “Gertrude Stein” and some of Picasso’s greatest cubist pictures. Many museums hold versions of the “Vollard Suite” or his haunting 1935 print “Minotauromachy.”

The Museum of Modern Art has … a lot. You could start with the tremblingly beautiful “Two Nudes,” in which two pneumatically inflated yet oddly compressed female bodies appear as if freshly hatched from an exhausted 19th century. You might then move on to “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” the most terrifying of all modern paintings; “Ma Jolie,” Picasso’s early cubist conjurer’s trick; “Glass of Absinthe,” a modest little trinket that completely revolutionized modern sculpture; “Girl Before a Mirror,” his bright, captivating take on an age-old metaphysical fascination; and “Woman Dressing her Hair,” one of the great evocations of the disturbing nearness of erotic attraction and repulsion.

But when appraising Picasso, you can’t just single out masterpieces and ignore the cumulative effect of his inventiveness — the sense in which he was continuously involved in a series of, as he put it, “researches.” His bewildering productivity can tempt us to categorize much of his output as casual, lightweight or somehow unserious. But — as artists like Paul Klee, Miró and Matisse also showed — things can be playful and profound at the same time. Picasso did more than anyone to entrench that liberating modern insight.

A born performer, Picasso was forever changing the rules, converting known things into new things. A friend of many poets, he treated graphic marks as his own freshly minted language and, like the best poets, loved contriving collisions that forced new meanings to emerge. His work was diaristic, but he was always abstracting aspects of his life into the realms of myth and philosophy, where life, death, time and transformation are all part of the same trembling, interconnected phenomenon. This is what gave the dark, erotic wildness of his surrealist years such power. But it informed his entire career.

Picasso was not, primarily, a sculptor, yet his intelligence in three dimensions was nothing short of flabbergasting. When he turned bodies and faces inside out, he could seem to be turning love and repulsion themselves inside out, so that what you are left with, psychologically, was never what you came in with. He understood (to a frankly disturbing degree) the truth in Degas’s statement that “the people you love the most are the people you could hate the most.”

The tensions he set up everywhere between two- and three-dimensional forms spoke profoundly to a deep human conflict between seeming (the ways we present ourselves and the ways others project onto us) and being (the way we are). He gave this existential tension a depth that, in its sheer turbulence, felt uniquely modern.

When Picasso abstracted recognizable images into the realm of signs and myths, as he repeatedly did, he was expressing intuitions about how consciousness relates to the objective world, to archetypes and to our ability to communicate — with obvious implications for the conditions of possibility for love.

Of course, the idea of being interested in what Picasso the misogynist had to say about love might not come easily to many. But this is one of the senses in which Eliot was, after all, right: Art is in a dynamic dialogue not only with other art but also with objective reality. When the force of both is unleashed, it really can float free of its makers. Biographies are great (Richardson’s, in particular, is full of insight), but we are not bound to see every artwork in biographical terms.

“The rapacity of Picasso’s pillaging eye,” wrote Spurling (who was, incidentally, Matisse’s biographer), “was matched by the velocity and precision of his responses. … He resaw, rethought and recreated the world by smash-and-grab, wrenching form apart, ripping out connections.” Spurling’s vivid word choices evoke a violence and ruthlessness that we have come to associate as much with the man as his artistic powers. But it’s good to remember that we can be as ruthless and selfish about our own uses for Picasso as he was about the art and people he exploited.

We don’t owe him anything. But we can surely continue to make use of his art.