Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Nuit Blanche

Nuit Blanche is a night when Paris doesn’t sleep for the sake of art. Where for one night all the museums stay open through till dawn and musicians, dancers, and artists of every kind line the streets of Paris to pay tribute to their craft. Too bad it took place in October.

I decided however, to try and recreate the spirit of that night. So, when my alarm went off at midnight waking me from a short nap after gallivanting around Belgium, I coerced myself out of bed, in true Parisian style, for the sake of art. When I arrived at the Grand Palais for the Picasso et les maîtres exhibit, Parisians and foreigners, the young and the grayed alike waited in line for the 2 am reservation. Only in Paris do people line up like it’s Black Friday in America in order to push their way through a crowded exhibition of paintings.
The problem I found when comparing Picasso’s works with those that he was inspired by was that Picasso seemed lack-luster in contrast to his “masters.” The fault of the curatorial concept was that instead of making Picasso’s work seem unique, it appeared as though he merely copied the famous subjects, compositions, and techniques of his predecessors and contemporaries. His brief jaunt into Pointillism (that I had never previously encountered) was preceded by Seurat’s extensive research into the technique of mélange optique.

Like every artist, Picasso studied the kouroi of Ancient Greece and the infamous reclining nude. Yet, even the untrained eye can discern the paintings of Picasso’s later works—the skewed eyes, angular nose, and expansive color palette. However, as I write this review, I can’t seem to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes Picasso so renowned. To his credit, he had one of the longest painting careers resulting in a portfolio that traverses several style periods. As a result, his style became an amalgamation of different influences and yet surmounts to a style that cannot be subjugated to a single style period but rather can only be defined as “Picasso.” The exaggerated body parts from early 16th century Mannerism, combined with the unnatural use of color from Fauvism, and the grandiose subject matter of Neoclassicism makes up Picasso’s L’enlevement des Sabines, 1963 (d’après David). I was, however, put off by the Eurocentric curation of the exhibit in that the exhibition only contained European “masters” without giving reference to Japanese prints that undoubtedly influenced the flattening of perspective nor any African wood masks that certainly influenced the angularity of faces within Picasso’s portraiture and one of his most famous oeuvres, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (not displayed as part of the exposition). I have included an example here.
As my eyelids wavered with fatigue and my vision became that of a soft focus camera, I realized a defining thread that weaved through Picasso’s blue, rose, proto-cubist, cubist (analytic and synthetic), and later periods. Throughout his career, there is a certain distance in the gaze of the subject. Even early portraiture that would be considered “realistic” by Picasso standards are removed from the viewer by a glazed over gaze. While I listen to my friends who are art history majors lament about an entire semester spent on the concept of “the gaze” in Art1, I myself had never noticed the consistency with which the eyes of the subject never directly meet the viewer throughout Picasso’s works. Sure enough, a little web curiosity led to the discovery of “La Mira Fuerte” (the powerful gaze) a concept that Picasso addresses late in his career as the large bubble eyes become paramount in his works. In this way, the artist reminds us of the artist’s most powerful tool: his eye.
So as people flocked like sheep through the exhibit glued to their omniscient audioguides, they had forgotten their most important role: that of the observer. Picasso’s works—though sometimes contested for its aesthetic value—provides a selective view of the important elements of the works that influenced him. Thus, it is not the masterpieces that shed new light on Picasso—but rather Picasso’s extractions that distill the masterpieces to what Picasso’s eye found to be important. I was most accosted (pleasantly so) by his explicit nudes that graphically portrayed only the defining elements of a reclining nude. Picasso extracted and portrayed only select female body parts in exaggeration thereby pointing out the objectification of the female body inherent in reclining nudes.

As I descended the marble staircase of the Grand Palais, snow lined the banisters and the Champs Elysees providing the final detail of my nuit blanche.

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