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The Picassos From the Basement

May 1, 2010

The Met’s enormous show of its own collection is short on Cubism—which, in a way, is a blessing.

(Photo: Hannah Whitaker)
It took the Metropolitan Museum of Art nearly 50 years to wake up to Pablo Picasso. It didn’t own one of his paintings until 1946, when Gertrude Stein bequeathed that indomitable quasi-Cubistic picture of herself—a portrait of the writer as a sumo Buddha—to the Met, principally because she disliked the Museum of Modern Art. Yet even this didn’t provide the Met a shot in its curatorial arm. (As late as the fifties, Met director Francis Henry Taylor was still calling MoMA “that whorehouse on 53rd Street.”) Only in 1979, after hiring the curator William S. Lieberman away from MoMA, did it start its long game of catch-up. Today, after relying on the kindness of donors and spending untold millions, the Met owns more of his work than any American museum except MoMA.

“Picasso in the Metropolitan Museum of Art” includes 300 works—nearly all the Picassos it owns. Given the fitful way this collection was assembled, it’s not surprising that it provides an uneven view of the artist’s singular career. Certain bodies of work (notably the Blue- and Rose-period paintings; several fantastic works on paper from the early teens; a handful of stunning masterpieces from the thirties) are jaw-dropping. Other periods, like his Cubist years and the late decades of his life, are practically absent. Yet in its meandering way, the Met’s show keeps an important revisionist ball rolling. Along with two other stellar Picasso exhibitions currently running, it’s helping sweep away the ridiculous, pernicious conventional view that Picasso was mediocre before Cubism and washed up afterward—that after his one huge paradigm shift from about 1906 to 1914, he sputtered through a sad, 60-year end.

The first three galleries contain a generous group of formal and sexual shockers that instantly prove the first part of that theory wrong. From 1903, when he was 22, there’s the almost barbaric, unexpectedly graphic Erotic Scene, the painting that’s usually called La Douleur. We see Picasso lifting his head to watch us watch him being fellated by a long-haired, faceless woman. In this nearly pre-lingual thing, the female figure is nothing but gangrenous curves, an inhuman animalistic being bowed before the would-be silverback male. The Met curator Gary Tinterow maintains that the picture lacks “quality” and “erotic intensity,” but I don’t agree. La Douleur pulsates with primitive psychic power and visual originality, and shows an artist arriving simultaneously at carnal knowledge of himself and his art.

Read more at: The Picassos From the Basement

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