Spain & Picasso

By Wilkin, Karen | New Criterion, January 2007 | Go to article overview

Spain & Picasso


Wilkin, Karen, New Criterion


Pablo Picasso should be looming large just now. In theory, the apparently fortuitous overlapping of two of this season's major exhibitions, "Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso: Time, Truth, and History" at the Guggenheim and "Picasso and American Art" at the Whitney ought to focus our attention on the artist whose name is synonymous with modern art. (1) In theory, these concurrent shows should make us consider Picasso as a bridge between past and present, between the Old World and the New. We should be thinking of him as both the heir to a tradition of Spanish painting that begins in the late sixteenth century and as an omnipotent father figure for generations of artists on this side of the Atlantic. I say "in theory" because, while both of these ambitious exhibitions offer abundant pleasures, a good deal of instruction, and even some surprises, neither one fully lives up to its promise. Many of the questions they raise about Picasso's relation to his ancestors and his descendants remain unanswered, while larger issues about the nature of national style and the role of influence itself remain unresolved.

Of course, the fact that "Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso: Time, Truth, and History" is an effort of the Guggenheim suggests a need for guarded expectations. So does the show's subtitle, cribbed from a little allegorical painting by Francisco de Goya (c. 1797-1800, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Symbolizing "time, truth, and history" provided Goya with an excuse to paint nudes; as a declaration of curatorial intentions, the phrase serves mainly to alert us to a high probability of intellectual pretense at the Guggenheim, an expectation completely fulfilled by the wall texts and supporting material, which also get high marks for condescension and redundancy. "Unlike other overviews that display paintings in a strictly chronological order," we are told, this show is

   presented in fifteen distinct sections, each
   based on a theme running through the past five
   centuries of Spanish culture. These thematic
   axes reveal the connections and affinities between
   the old masters and the modern era
   through a series of carefully chosen, content-based
   dusters, each based on a theme running
   through the past five centuries of Spanish culture.
   Accordingly, within each section of the
   exhibitions works from different periods appear
   side by side, offering often radical juxtapositions
   that cut across time to reveal the
   overwhelming coherence of the Spanish
   tradition.

The fifteen distinct sections are titled--please bear with me--Monks, Bodegones, Landscapes of Fire/Blood and Sand, The Domestic World, Women in Public, Weeping Women, Virgins and Mothers, Nudes, Childhood, Monstruos, Knights and Ghosts, Ladies, Crucifixions, The Fallen, and Flyers. Yet these categories, far from illuminating the themes "running through the past five centuries of Spanish culture," come across, at best, as attempts to impose some kind of justification on a random selection of works or, at worst, as efforts to reduce the complex tradition of Spanish painting to easily digested, visual "sound-bytes." The kindest interpretation is that the curators, Carmen Gimenez and Francisco Calvo Serraller, assembled as many of their favorite works as space, budget, and availability permitted and then concocted a "narrative" to explain their choices.

The cumulative effect is like that staple of introductory art history courses, the "compare and contrast" slide exam. Claudio Coello painted a tearstained head of a penitent Magdalen around 1665-1670 and Picasso painted an agonized head of a weeping woman in 1937. Francisco de Zurbaran painted an Agnus Dei as a bound lamb, destined for the butcher's shop, around 1636-1640, Francisco de Goya painted a couple of pitifully dead hares and a dead turkey, both about 1808-1812, Picasso painted a dead rooster with his feet bound in 1947 and--wait for it--a still life with three sheep's skulls in 1939. …

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