Coast Chronicles: Art is never chaste: Picasso’s Picassos

Public domain only in the U.S. as per Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp. Some feel that Picasso’s portait of Gertrude Stein (1906) presages the turn in his career toward Cubism. As he said, “Are we to paint what’s on the face, what’s inside the face, or what’s behind it?”

Last week I took a break from our grindingly grey weather to venture to the city for the last days of the Picasso show at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). Deputy Director and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture Chiyo Ishikawa, managed to convince Musée Picasso Director Anne Baldassari to let Picasso’s works fly around the world to Seattle. 

Musée Picasso closed its doors in August 2009 for a three-year, $28 million renovation and locked away Picasso’s 3,000 works. It was reported that the museum would stop lending Picasso’s art while French experts updated its inventory. 

Baldassari had often complained that the current museum did not have sufficient room for its collection — only 300 works can be shown at one time — but the renovation, long in coming, evidently provided the opportunity to allow some works to venture to other lands. 

Le Marais 

Picasso once said, “I am the greatest collector of Picassos in the world,” as he retained hundreds of his favorite pieces from each of his periods. Musée Picasso gathers together a collection of the works he chose to keep for himself. (They were paid for estate taxes, called in France “la dation,” after he died.) 

I visited the Picasso Museum several years ago in the old Hotel Salé on rue de Thorigny in the section of Paris called Le Marais — “the swamp.” 

The Parisian “swamp” is hardly swampy — it’s a historic district located in the 3rd and 4th arrondissements most known for aristocratic architecture on the Rive Droite, the Right Bank. It houses Carnavalet, the museum of the history of Paris; Places des Vosges, the oldest public square in Paris, where often one finds off-hours opera impresarios singing under the reverberating stone arches; Hôtel de Sully; and the National Archives. 

Le Marais is also home to the Jewish quarter as well as the more recent immigration of gay men, and, of course, artists, writers and musicians. 

Le Marais’ rue des Rosiers sports Chez Marianne, a little tucked away café with an extensive wine cellar and a mind-boggling delicatessen buffet. Just down the street is Jo Goldenberg’s deli — though a recent online memo posted by Goldenberg’s grandson notes “Jo has retired. Dog has died … end of an era,” so one might have to make-do with Micky’s Deli or Sacha Finkelsztajn around the corner. 

Musée Picasso 

Musée Picasso is just a few blocks away and, once inside the stone courtyard of what was at one time the mansion of Lord Fontenay, you enter the amazing world of Picasso. The three-story meandering gallery holds a surfeit of riches: paintings, prints, drawings, collage, sculpture, tapestry and ceramics. You get only the tiniest taste of how magnificent and fecund was the imagination of this master — but any more and surely your head would explode. 

Picasso lived from 1881 until 1973 and produced over 50,000 works of art. He was inspired by his string of muses — lovers, mistresses, and, only twice, wives; and, perhaps, there is no artist in history who explored more thoroughly the female form. 

I have a special relationship with Picasso because of my longstanding association with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. (They are my neighbors in Paris — well, they “live” just minutes away in Père Lachaise.) Gertrude and her brother Leo were some of Picasso’s first serious collectors and during 1906, Gertrude walked across the city over several months to sit for Picasso in his Montmartre studio. (After Gertrude’s death, Picasso had a studio on rues des Grand-Augustins, just around the corner from Alice’s apartment.) 

Stein’s portrait is said by many to point the way to Cubism. Her face, which Picasso left blank for months, was finally completed in a flurry; her eyes seem to be floating in different planes. When people complained that Stein did not look like her portrait, Picasso said, “She will.” 

Picasso’s Picassos 

So, somehow the stars aligned and 150 selected works from Picasso’s long career arrived in Seattle for display. I could barely contain my enthusiasm waiting in line for my prescribed entry time. 

I had a tip to start at the end of the exhibit — a great idea since a bevy of mostly uninterested elementary school kids were hustled in just before our grouping. (My one beef is that SAM tried to squeeze too many people into the exhibit at the same time. There was virtually no way to have a quiet moment with any of the works.) 

I felt again — as I had in Musée Picasso — the thrill of being in the presence of the master. 

One can stare at the print of a painting and understand its heritage, the structure of its composition, perhaps even the use of color and form; but there is nothing like being in the direct energy field of a work of art — it’s a first person experience. I felt this exhibit with my entire body. 

Since I began at the end, I was first confronted with the bronze “Femme Enceinte,” Pregnant Woman (Vallauris, 1949). In the wake of Françoise Gilot’s second pregnancy, Picasso fashioned two sculptures with this name — one realistic and this one more an icon than a portrayal. 

She was mounted on the wall, headless, with little fat patty-cake hands in contrast to her rod-like spine with just the suggestion of vertebrae, cross-sticks on the rod; tiny globular breasts, and a distinct (if one looked carefully) vulva tucked in below her bulbous belly. She is stark and sensuous at the same time. 

She was paired with a bestial “Le Baiser” (Mougin, October 1969), the kiss — one of Picasso’s many works with this title. This oil depicts a couple, their lips touching intimately; but the man, mostly bald with curly locks around his ears, looks like a Minotaur. As Picasso aged he took younger and younger women and, in the last decades of his life, began to portray himself as an aging, sometimes even grotesque, lover. 

The other piece that had a profound effect on me was a small (by Picasso’s standards) 9-inch by      7-inch gouache on wood entitled “La Suppliante,” The Supplicant. One breast and a massive nipple is exposed; her misshapen clawed hands reaching to the sky look more animal than human. Her tongue protrudes between her teeth, the way a goat’s might before slaughter. Like the contorted figures in “Guernica,” she is a victim of the Spanish Civil War — maybe she has lost a child, a husband — her female cry of pain for all ages. 

Art Is Never Chaste 

Just before Adelaide’s closed for their winter break, I grabbed “Just Kids,” the autobiography by rocker Patti Smith about her life with homo-erotic photographer and artist Robert Mapplethorpe in New York City in the ‘60s and ‘70s. 

Although Smith won the National Book Award for this memoir, I was initially skeptical as I trudged through stilted, hifalutin prose in the first part of the book. But when part two, Chelsea Hotel, opened up, Patti got in a groove and there was no laboring over metaphors. The story unfolded naturally and smoothly like one of Mapplethorpe’s still-life flowers. 

“Just Kids” and the Picasso show swirled in my mind: the strident, even obsessive virility (and longevity) of Picasso’s brilliance versus the “you must change your life” struggle of the artists and politicians in my generation. 

John Lennon was murdered 30 years ago on Dec. 8. This week we celebrated the life of Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated April 4, 1968.  

Patti Smith lived through the deaths of friends Jimi Hendrix, Sept. 18, 1970; Janis Joplin, Oct. 4, 1970; Jim Morrison July 3, 1971, (followed three years later by Jim’s wife Pamela Courson). These were preceded by the shooting of four Kent State students in May 1970. And only after we shot JFK on Nov. 22, 1963; then Bobbie, June 6, 1968. 

Smith’s artistic partner and soulmate Mapplethorpe died of AIDS March 9, 1989, one of many lost. 

Picasso said, “Art is never chaste. It ought to be forbidden to ignorant innocents, never allowed into contact with those not sufficiently prepared. Yes, art is dangerous.” 

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