Picasso Poor; Pablo Is Not Served Well by the National Gallery's New Show but There Are Enough Thrilling Pictures to Make It Worthwhile

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Byline: EXHIBITION OF THE WEEK BRIAN SEWELL

PICASSO: CHALLENGING THE PAST National Gallery

PICASSO was a painter. At 14, he was a precocious brat to scare the wits out of the Zarzuela world of fin-de-siecle Barcelona. At 19, he was in Paris, gulping down Gauguin and Van Gogh. At 20 -- yes, at 20 -- his Blue Period began, the tender ethereal palette complementing his compassion for the pathos of love and death, all the developments from Impressionism firmly rejected in favour of plastic form and emotional subject matter. At 25, already and always the brilliant thief of ideas, he grasped the twin inspirations of crude Iberian sculpture and African masks and totems, and painted the great Demoiselles d'Avignon, the outrage that even his friends Matisse and Braque found difficult to stomach.

With this one picture, unevenly finished and quite certainly unresolved, he outstripped the slow history of art and stormed into the unknown of the 20th century; Congo barbarism became Cubism, the conventions of perspective were abandoned and, as the mannerisms of the movement developed through their several phases, forms were shattered into crystal facets and set into a plane, and the presence of the subject faded in these new fields of lowtoned paint.

Picasso invested too much in Cubism.

When, after the brief decade of its life, 1908-1918, it proved to be a cul-de-sac, he could only escape its barren end by reverting to motifs of his Pink and Blue Periods and by turning to the classicism of antique Rome. It was for him the end of logical or progressive development and his career became a thing of fits and starts. Guernica of 1937, in which the horrors of war were reflected in the deliberate distortion and corruption of subjects and dismantled forms, was the only other forward leap to match the importance of the Demoiselles but even this new vocabulary lost its energy and, debased in repetition and subject, became an instrument of intellectual frivolity. He lived too long, and at the end, still covering as many as two canvases a day, was condemned to painting as a therapy, his mind empty of original ideas.

In this he was no match for Titian, whose trembling octogenarian hand could still fumble into being great masterpieces informed with tenebrous melancholy -- witness the Diana and Actaeon bought two months ago by the National Gallery, a painting that some see as a lurking ghost in the composition of the Demoiselles. In 1907 that may have been an honest borrowing; half a century later Picasso would have dismantled it in puerile caricature -- the fate of masterpieces by Poussin, Velazquez, Delacroix and Manet.

We must never forget, however, that Picasso, throughout his life, drew heavily on his own work, borrowing directly from his own repertoire of images, often leaving them virtually unaltered or, in rejigging them, changing their style, form and meaning. The older he grew, the greater was his accumulated wealth of visual assets and ideas to use, as he put it in 1945, as "an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy". In so challenging the past -- the title of the National Gallery's new exhibition of his work -- is it possible to see the best of him? I think not. The best lies in the Demoiselles and Guernica, in both of which Picasso painted with aggression: the first a salvo fired against other painters, other styles, other mannerisms and perhaps even against himself as the painter of discreet beauty in the later Saltimbanques painted the year before; and the second not a protest against any of these things but against the fascist politics of Hitler, Mussolini and France and their determination to undo the legitimate Leftwing republican democracy of Spain.

Neither of these paintings is in the exhibition and without them -- without, too, the paintings by Velazquez and others on which Picasso's variations are based -- it seems an almost too demure and genteel exploration of the subject and far too defensive of Picasso's reputation. …