Pain in Paint

Pablo Picasso, "Guernica" (1937)  Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid

Pablo Picasso, “Guernica” (1937) Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid

Picasso is overrated.

Most of the art establishment would consider that statement heresy; their esteem for him matches his attitude about himself. Some authorities regard Pablo Picasso as the greatest artist since Michelangelo, to which I say, “Oh, please.”

As I have admitted before, I’m no expert, but I have stood in front of a lot of works by Picasso in a lot of museums. There are a lot of Picassos to see, by the way: His total output exceeds 30,000 works.

That astonishing number is due in part to the fame he enjoyed over his long life; Picasso could sneeze into a napkin and collectors would proclaim it a masterpiece. He’d dash off a painting or collage just about daily, some of which were quite good… but there were plenty that weren’t so hot. At least, they weren’t vastly superior to the work of his colleagues like Georges Braque.

Picasso enhanced his reputation by figuring out how to “work the room” in the art community. He systematically befriended critics, dealers, other artists, and writers who helped advance his career. That’s not to say that he was without artistic talent; clearly he had it. But some of the Picasso phenomenon sprang from his shrewd calculations about how to use associates for personal gain.

Down through the centuries there have been many artists who weren’t exactly lovable — Caravaggio, just to name one — so what we know about their personal lives probably shouldn’t influence our appreciation of their work.

However, having seen a generous sampling of Picasso’s work (much of which hadn’t enthralled me) and knowing a bit about his character (or lack thereof) I was surprised by my reaction to his celebrated painting “Guernica”. I hadn’t expected to be moved by it, but I was.

Like you, I’d seen reproductions of the painting, but finally came face-to-face with it, so to speak, in Madrid. It’s housed in a modern-art museum popularly known as the Reina Sofia, named for Spain’s current queen.

Guernica (pronounced GARE-nee-kuh) is a town in northern Spain that, in 1937, became the subject of an experiment in wartime brutality. Francisco Franco, Spain’s dictator at the time, gave his fellow fascist Adolf Hitler the go-ahead to attack the town with a saturation-bombing raid. Hundreds — perhaps thousands — of civilians died.

Picasso was in Paris at the time, doing preliminary work on a mural he had been commissioned to paint for an international exposition. Outraged at the news of what had happened in Guernica, he scrapped a tableau of flamenco dancers (or whatever he originally intended to do) and launched into the epic anti-war painting instead.

It’s quite large, something like 11’x25′. “Guernica” is not a representation of the historical event, but the Cubist style — fragments randomly reassembled — conveys the destructive effect of the bombing. (Click on the picture to enlarge it.)

The individual images within the painting are emotionally powerful: On the left, a mother sobs with her dead baby in her arms. Another woman, on the right edge, seems to be trapped in rubble, screaming for help. In the foreground is a dead fighter; he is still clutching a broken sword.

The unbearable pain of the tragedy is evident.

I’m still not a huge fan of Pablo Picasso in general, but I greatly admire this particular painting. Somehow the bombs that hit Guernica also ignited the conscience of an artist not known for having one.


4 responses to “Pain in Paint

  1. The label “greatest” comes not just from his execution but also from his longevity and range. Until his death at 91, was able to create at the highest levels in a variety of styles unlike most artist who are easily identified by a single style. True, he borrowed liberally (I’ve always bad for Braque) and was not an admirable person but his work in a variety of styles is worthy. I hear his brackets were amazing though not very prescient.

  2. You’re right about the variety of styles, Monty, but I might quibble about “at the highest levels”. Although he produced a lot of stuff over a very long span of time, he is mostly remembered for work he did at the beginning of the 20th century. It stands to reason that if an artist cranks out 30,000 pieces, they aren’t all going to be gems. As for his tournament brackets, he probably had paid assistants to fill those in and submit to the office pool.

  3. Picasso. Born in the area called Andalusia, considered the “mas macho” region of Spain. Was his disposable attitude towards women influenced by his terre natale?

    30,000 works may be a conservative estimate. Some estimate 50,000.
    Regardless, what kind of day- timer would hold all of his life’s activities?
    Art, mistresses, wives, children, entertaining friends and the business associated with being Picasso was a full enough agenda.

    Perhaps that is the problem. Many of his works appear hurried, as if the next appointment is waiting in the foyer. Will many of these thinly painted, pastel by default repetitive works stand the test of time?

    Not all of them. But you have to paint to see. And not everything that sees the light of day is admirable. In the 1956 documentary, Le Mystere Picasso you can watch him create art while being filmed. It is fast paced and decisive. He declares one attempt a failure, abandons it and goes to the next painting. No artist’s block here.

    One of his quotes is telling: “Give me a museum and I’ll fill it.”

    Filling is like eating without regard for the quality of the meal. I find many of Picasso’s works hastily prepared.

  4. Pingback: artiste peintre

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