Tag Archives: Picasso

Travelling with the Art Student Part 2

This isn’t an account of our travels. It’s just a slightly shell-shocked continuation of the list of artists whose work we’ve seen in New York, Los Angeles and briefly Philadelphia.

First of all, the omissions from the list in part 1: Picasso and George Segal as mentioned in a comment on the earlier post; Object Matter, a big exhibition of Robert Heineken’s photographic work, including a very entertaining talk on his The S. S. Copyright Project: ‘On Photography; two different collections that included paintings from the late 19th and early 20th century big names; a vast exhibition of romantic photographs of nature and people who live close to nature, by Sebastião Salgado; street sculptures by Keith Haring.

And since my last post:

  • Lorraine O’Grady: Art Is …, in which she took picture frames to an African-American celebration in 1983 and photographed people and places being ‘framed’
  • Samara Golden: The Flat Side of the Knife, a huge, disorientating installation of an Escherish house with a mirrored floor that makes it seem to go down and down
  • Zero Tolerance: a huge exhibition at MoMA PS1 in Queens, that Deborah Kelly, met by chance, recommend to us. It included a poster for one of her works, Tank Man Tango. The participating artists are too many to name but they came from all over the world and taken in the aggregate presented an overwhelming image of a world in turmoil: extraordinary footage from just after Ceaucescu’s overthrow in Romania, horrific responses to a heroic Gay Rights demonstration in Romania, a cacophonous room called Democracies, with 20 video screens by Artur Żmijewski showing places of apparently intractable conflict.
  • big rooms full of David Hockney and Pablo Picasso in the same gallery – different sections
  • Ursula von Rydingsvard: Great towering works carved from cedar with a chain saw – new ones in a Chelsea gallery and an older one, in bronze, at a Brooklyn train station
  • Lorenzo Vitturi: photographs, that at first glance look like PhotoShop fantasies, but are actually of sculptures made from leftover fruit from a market in London
  • El Anatsui: a Ghanaian who makes huge, stunning tapestries from the neck-foils of discarded wine bottles – our tour guide was impressed that he started doing this because he couldn’t afford to buy materials and now sells his pieces for 7 figure sums and can employ people to scrounge the foils for him. We saw another of his pieces at the Metropolitam Museum
  • Kay Hassan: big images, mostly portraits but one landscape with football-playing figures which I loved, made by collage from paper scrounged from street posters
  • Eve Hild: lovely stonework ceramics
  • William Wegman: an photographic exhibition called ‘Cubism and other -Isms’ which featured Wegman’s very photogenic and athletic dog posed among and on top of primary colours and mainly stark geometric shapes
  • A number of women ‘sculpting animism’ at the Cavin-Morris Gallery, which quoted Doreen Kartinyeri in its handout (though sadly, no Australians, Indigenous or otherwise, were represented in the stunning ceramics and weaving on display

We went to the Met, where we were so sated we skipped the El Greco, and MoMA for the Matisse cut-outs, where the student fell in love with Cezanne. A trip to Philadelphia with US friends for the Barnes and Philadelphia Museums (more than $100 each in train fares at a Seniors discount, compared to $2.50 each from Sydney to Newcastle and back at home!) included much more Cezanne, far too much Renoir, never enough Monet. We had a fabulous visit with the same friends to the Frick Collection. We trawled once more through the galleries of Chelsea and oh my God I forgot to mention Adrián Villar Rojas’ The Evolution of God and other sculptures on the High Line … so now I’ll stop.

Talking about looking at painting about bombing Guernica

In my 20s, on my first trip overseas, Picasso’s Guernica and I happened to be in New York at the same time. It had a room to itself in the Museum of Modern Art. I wandered in and admired it with pretty much the same undifferentiated awe as I’d brought to pretty much everything else in MOMA. I suppose I was suffering a kind of low-grade colonial Stendhalism (you know, the condition where visitors to Florence grow faint from exposure  to too much beauty). The only other person in the room, a young man about my own age, spoke: ‘I’ve been wanting to see this all my life. Isn’t it amazing?’ I thought he was some kind of weirdo, either that or an art student.

I saw Guernica again in Madrid five years ago, this time in the context of a major Picasso exhibition, and, having read Alice Miller’s essay on Picasso in The Untouched Key, I saw it a little better.

Last night the Art Student and I caught a bus to town to hear a Sydney Ideas talk by Professor Timothy J Clark, art historian from the University of York in England: ‘Looking again at Picasso’s Guernica’. I came away feeling that when it comes to looking at something like this painting, I’m not much better than a day old kitten.

As the fast-talking professor who introduced the speaker said, we mostly hear Picasso spoken of in connection with erotic adventures and high auction prices. CJ Clark’s interest lies elsewhere. Guernica, he said, is a history painting, already an anachronism when it was painted in 1937, but a history painting that refuses to die: it crops up again and again in anti-war demonstrations. A tapestry at the United Nations building was covered with black felt at the insistence of Colin Powell when the US was bombing civilians somewhere. How to account for its enduring power?

His stab at answering this question took focused on Picasso’s relationship to space. Picasso for him, he said, ‘is a history painter’, and the main history he painted was ‘the end of room space’, that is the traditional subject of paintings – a space built for human habitation, with a roof, walls, furniture and perhaps a window looking out onto external space. That subject would seem to be a long way from Franco’s bombing of the historic Basque town of Guernica. Yet, as far as I could understand the argument, CJ Clarke was saying that the struggle to resolve issues of space – both room space and public space – is at the heart of the painting’s success. The painting was completed in five weeks from its inception, and Picasso spent just 26 days working on the canvas. His ‘muse and lover’ (Wikipedia’s description) Dora Maar took a series of photographs of the work in progress, of which Clarke used slides to take us through his argument: we looked at the way classic motifs were introduced and then obscured, at the importance of the sheer scale of the painting, at the role of geometry, etc etc. We didn’t touch on Alice Miller’s key (she locates the painting’s emotional force in its connection to major childhood trauma) and the erotics of the painting, we were told in an aside, is a story yet to be told.  That is to say, a lot was said about the painting, but there is so many more important things that can be said from so many other valid perspectives, so much more to be discovered in this one painting.

Such close looking may be commonplace for art students – for me it was breathtakingly interesting. I couldn’t see how, or even if, the discussion actually went any way towards explaining the painting’s enduring power, but I’ll leave that to people with better equipped eyes to answer.

Clarke’s next book is Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica. I expect it will be a good read.