Magazine article The Spectator

Bravery beyond the Call of Duty: The Men Who Dared to Say Boo to Picasso

Magazine article The Spectator

Bravery beyond the Call of Duty: The Men Who Dared to Say Boo to Picasso

Article excerpt

SHARED OPINION

A majority of art critics plus received opinion - two not entirely separate groups have declared Picasso the winner in the Tate Modern match against Matisse. No wonder; bad things have happened to people who have questioned the greatness of Picasso, such as the neo-romantic painter, sculptor and champion of English art Michael Ayrton (1921-75), once this magazine's art critic.

In the mid-1940s, he indulged in just such a questioning; first in a radio talk, later in Penguin New Writing in an article called 'A Master of Pastiche (a personal reaction to Picasso)'. It began:

To write anything but praise, or to attempt anything but a favourable analysis of the present value and future significance of the art of Picasso, is to be attacked at once. I have taken this risk on several occasions and have been variously accused of personal jealousy, fifth-column activity and high treason. I have also been taken to task for changing my spots in midstream, to coin a mixed metaphor in the manner of the master's own painting....

A deft touch, that last phrase - considering the assorted newspaper cuttings, etc. to be found mixed together in some of the master's great works. With sublime courage, Ayrton pressed on towards almost certain annihilation. He positioned a defence on his flank: 'I have never denied his genius.' But then he plunged to his doom:

I suggest, however, that changing the course of European art does not ipso facto improve that course .... Such men as Hitler have changed the course of human history to the disadvantage of mankind, and I believe that Picasso, taking all into account, has been of very negative service to art in his changing of its course.

But the one accusation I find hard to take is that of not understanding Picasso. Heavens alive, his work is not difficult to understand. If it was really obscure, if it really required long and concentrated study, Picasso would not be the richest and most famous artist alive.

That did it! To compare Picasso to Hitler was one thing. But to suggest that Picasso was not difficult, did not require long and concentrated study! Ayrton was now a marked man. The reader of his brilliant article senses that, by this stage, there can be no turning back, and the author might as well abandon all concern for his personal safety.

He suggests that `nothing could be simpler' than Picasso's process:

He is not concerned with nature, nor with a single tradition, and in this he differs from artists of the past, as Woolworth's differs from the craftsman's shop. What he does is to engulf an existing formula, choosing, it seems, at random.from the history of his art. It may be negro sculpture, Greek vase painting, or the drawings of Ingres. This formula, once digested, he regurgitates, like the albatross feeding her young, accentuating certain characteristics and obliterating others. Having exhausted one formula he turns to another, possibly maintaining part of the first ... the classic Graeco-Roman head, for instance, establishes a comfortable association of ideas which prepares him [the viewer] for whatever apparently outrageous exaggeration Picasso may see fit to use to enliven his picture.

Later, Ayrton observes:

The dilettanti of today who are so foolishly quick to despise a legitimate influence present in a young artist's work are prepared to swallow with delight the painting of Picasso whose derivations have been so blatant for 40 years. …

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