Let Yourself Be Grabbed by "Picasso The Line"

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By now can there be even a single Picasso fart that has not been recorded and religiously researched for its artistic implications — perhaps even taken as the basis of a doctoral dissertation? Since everything about him seems to have the odor of genius, I doubt it. Picasso — everything Picasso — it seems, is important and everywhere.

Exhibitions within easy memory include “Picasso Black and White” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; “Picasso and Braque: The Cubist Experiment, 1910-1912” at the Kimball in Fort Worth; and the great (so they say; I didn’t get to see it) “Picasso Sculpture” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. And now “Picasso The Line,” an exhibition of his drawings at The Menil Collection, guest curated by Carmen Giménez, founding director of the Picasso Museum in Málaga, Spain, Picasso’s birthplace, and curator of “Picasso Black and White”; assisted in Houston by David Breslin, John R. Eckel, Jr. Foundation Chief Curator, Menil Drawing Institute (but soon departing for the Whitney Museum of American Art); and Clare Elliott, Menil associate curator.

So many Picasso exhibitions, and yet there never seem to be too many. Each one reveals a little something new and important as it splits hairs finer and finer. Even Picasso skeptics — there are a few, of whom I persist in trying to be one — may have their eyes opened whether they want them opened or not: “Black and White” — fascinating; “Cubist Experiment” — illuminating; and the sculpture show I did get to see at the Picasso Museum in Paris — amazing.

Picasso is the Monet of Modernism. Though neither artist worked alone — Monet had Renoir and expanding rings of others working around him; Picasso had Braque to ally with in the early days and Matisse to spar with for decades — it’s Monet and Picasso who have become the marquee names that keep us flocking in. Who knows why? With Picasso, in addition to his genius, I suspect it’s a Spanish earthiness, a playfulness, even a fierceness that draw us — qualities evident in this exhibition, though sometimes subtly.

“Picasso The Line” is installed chronologically. We get a bit of everything, from the artist’s early blue and rose periods (no color here, however — these are drawings) straight through an 80-year career. The presentation is restrained, even reverent, with none of the theatricality of some recent Menil shows, like last year’s “Affecting Presence and the Pursuit of Delicious Experiences” and “The Precarious.” I must admit that I prefer a little drama with my museum shows when I can get it, but maybe you can’t do drama when you’re showing the religious relics of modern art.

According to the catalog, there are heavy things going on in the show: drawing versus the linear, the cartographic line, other things too deep for me. For maximum edification, take your Picasso library into the galleries with you.

Or maybe take a different approach and just breeze through, letting yourself be grabbed by the works that grab you. If you keep your eyes open, something will grab. I suspect for many it will be, as it was for me, the Self-Portrait of 1918.

“Are you looking at me?” it seems to say, with Taxi Driver belligerence. “I’m looking at you.” Looking at everything in eye-shot, in fact, and drawing it. For Picasso, not uniquely but especially, drawing was the first step in transforming into art the things he saw with all that looking. As the exhibition brochure says, “It is hard to find a painting or sculpture by the Spanish artist that has not been cast from the die of drawing.”

In that light, a Picasso drawings-only exhibition makes sense, particularly if there hasn’t ever been one as laser-focused as the current show. But making it all and only drawings has the out-of-context downside of extracting drawing from the fullness of Picasso’s practice in a way that ultimately may make them seem less important than they are — for the general looker, anyway, not already deeply familiar with all of Picasso’s work.

Yes, many of the drawings are wonderful. Even many that don’t quite reach that height, like The Vine, from 1921 (which would make fabulous wallpaper), are interesting. But in the galleries their place in his larger body of work is largely left a mystery — an abstraction to be accepted on faith, because they’re by Picasso, after all, and so must be great. Even a single gallery placing a drawing beside the paintings and sculptures that grew out of it would have served to awaken those of us who are not Picasso specialists to the generative significance of drawing in his process. On that recent visit to the Picasso Museum in Paris, I found just such a gallery, starting with a version of The Painter and His Model (1928), which is, in this show, transformative.

But I quibble about what might have been, instead of basking in what is. Picasso would not approve. And so these are some of the things that grabbed me as I breezed through.

Seven Dancers (1919) was a delightful shock, especially since I wrote about it recently in a different context (a Houston context) not knowing that I’d soon be standing in front of it. This, and its neighbor, Two Ballet Dancers, show the playful Picasso. Those huge hands — what Seinfeld, in a less correct decade, called man hands — what are they about? But what fun. Olga, by the way, was Picasso’s wife and a dancer with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. When he did these drawings, he and Olga were still on speaking terms.

Further on, Study for a Head of a Man In “Guernica” (1937) hints at the fierce Picasso. It stands as the single representative of what is probably Picasso’s best known, maybe even his greatest work. I’m glad I already knew the Guernica story when I saw it: not a great accomplishment — probably most viewers will. Otherwise I’d have had no idea of the power of the painting from this single drawing. Guernica is one of those rare political paintings that work. Or perhaps not so much political as dagger-sharp in its depiction of the anguish resulting from atrocious political decisions gone wrong. The Spanish excel at such paintings (think of much of Goya’s work), perhaps because they’ve lived them so often. The drawing shows something of that anguish; it’s not just another crazy Picasso head.

And then there’s Picasso’s earthiness. If this weren’t all such high art, you might almost think that some of it verged on soft, or even hardcore, porn, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Coupling, from 1933, is XXX. Head of a Man and Nude Woman (I) (1969) shows a young man’s head inside layers and layers of other heads — maybe the young Picasso inside the old? — looking at a voluptuous woman stripped bare. This one, and some of the reclining nudes toward the end of the show, all made in the late 1960s when Picasso was getting toward his own end, remind me of the peep-show longings of an old man. (Takes one to know one.) Though Nude Woman (I) seems to be offering her full breast to Head of a Man, so there are undoubtedly other longings involved as well.

By my second visit to Self-Portrait, the belligerence had faded away overnight. Though Picasso was 37 when he drew it, in the morning light he seemed to be showing a younger self — 20 or 25 — with a too-large nose, sensuous lips and almond eyes, still looking, but maybe with a little tentative braggadocio, not yet quite sure everyone was buying the greatness thing. And with three hairs standing out on the back of his neck. Sometimes it’s the little things that give you the tingle. For me it was those three hairs. I’m buying the greatness thing, not that anyone cares, though I think the guy in the drawing might be a little pleased.

Forty plus years ago, when Picasso died, a poet friend of mine named Claudia Scott sent me a poem commemorating his transition shortly before her own death from suicide (it was a hard time to be a family-loving lesbian with a rejecting family). I wish I could print it all here, but since I can’t, I’ll include some relevant lines:

“Picasso finally is dead
in hundreds of museums
thousands of plastic plaques are finished
pictures beside them
seem to plant themselves more
confidently, solidly against the wall
they have their places now

the definitive Picasso exhibition may begin”

Claudia may have been right about when the definitive exhibition began. Clearly it still hasn’t finished.

“Picasso The Line”
Through January 8, 2017. The Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400, menil.org.

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