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Wednesday, May 8, 2013


Picasso Black and White at the MFA Houston is one of the finest exhibits I've ever seen. Engaging with his work is learning how to see again and again. It's difficult to describe what effect of opening-up or unfolding his work has on me and how refreshing the various planes and overlapping images are in reinventing, re-presenting not just the plastic space of the painting itself, but the space we ourselves inhabit.

Writing about the poet Han Shan, Gary Snyder said his works were a drink of fresh water for the weary traveler. For me, I would say this about Picasso.

Additionally, the black and white/monochrome works echo the recording of the onslaught of the disasters of worldwide depression and the rise of fascism that lead to the Second World War. I think Picasso said that painting should be an instrument of war and indeed, his studies for "Guernica" and his later works throughout the forties are codes to the horrible tragedy that engulfed the world.

I detest sometimes being confronted by works like "Postscript to Guernica, Dead Child II" because the sheer force of the work and what is refers to is altogether too fresh, too strong. We forget previous eras' horrors only to reinvent them again in the present.

I've heard people be perplexed by these works, how violent and ugly they are, but how could they not be when ugliness and violence was outside his door in Paris during the occupation? How else come to terms with the distortion of the human spirit?

Max Ernst once said that Dada was a bomb that was meant to explode, it was a reaction by poets, artists, musicians and performers to the brutal dissolution of the European continent during and in the wake of the First World War. Picasso's works during this time could best be described as melancholic, perhaps. But even so, there was a lyricism and playfulness in many of his works, particularly in his portraits and just the way he worked with the human body. I wonder if, in his fifties and sixties as war once again reared its head like a mad, drunken Minotaur bellowing for rape and destruction, he was driven by a more horrific zeitgeist? He must have, as Gurdjieff would put it, realized the "terror of the situation."

I'm sitting across from "The Charnel House", a painting I've seen many times at MOMA, but here it's a little more removed in a smaller, more intimate space and I find myself on the verge of tears. By 1944, I'm assuming news of the camps had gotten out and been confirmed. We see an unfinished work or maybe it's only apparently unfinished; the insanity of what came out of Dachau, Aushwitz, Buchenwald couldn't be contained or addressed rationally in any one work. Perhaps, not even in a whole life's body of work.

The vacant stare of the man's face in the lower right of the composition rests in eloquent counterpoint to the closed eyes of the woman and the child dead and bound. There are no flames, no smoke issuing from stacks in any obvious manner or rendering, rather the space is a jaggedly organized interior, evoking perhaps the disorientation of the victims' last moments and simultaneously, the disorientation and madness of a world where such atrocity could occur.

I purposely visited his response to Velasquez "Las Meninas" first, because I knew what was coming. It's a testament to his resilience that he was able to flourish and find a renewed vocabulary after the debacle that not just Europe but the entire world was emerging from.

You can't sugarcoat too much about the man. He could be gregarious, funny and childlike. He was a great charmer, a seducer of the highest order, but despite what Jonathan Richman wrote, he could be an asshole and something tells me that at least one ex-lover, ex-wife, ex-friend must have called him that. But art doesn't come from that side of us. Despite what people would like to think, it does not come from the ego, from the ersatz personality. Art is the up-springing of what is most essential about us and within us. It cannot arise from a sense that "I" am doing anything. There are those with degrees of exceptional technical facility, who can be quite clever, but ultimately, have little to say and whose works like their lives, ring hollow.

Then there are those whose being is, whether they like it or not, a vessel for the moments when the muse descends. If they have the fortitude, the strength (sometimes physical as much as aesthetic) and the ability to keep themselves open to the creative spirit, they may be a Michaelangelo, a Picasso. They may or may not be proud and vainglorious; they may be quite humble. It doesn't matter. The works they leave in their passing are what count.

I'm closing this entry here, but plan on returning for a second pass. This encounter with the Spaniard has been most rich and I'm grateful to have spent some quality time with the old guy, the father to us all.


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