Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Of Bathers and Of Pornography: Picasso at Grand Palais

Since coming to Paris, I have been told by Parisians and “Stanfordians” alike that I must go see Picasso at Grand Palais. When Midori sent out an email for reservations she made for 2am, I automatically thought it was a typo and wrote 2pm in my planner. When I found out that, « No, actually, it is so popular that it is open for 24 hours » I was a bit shocked. Indeed, I was totally unprepared for how difficult it would be to get in. I went at 9am Sunday morning and was daunted by the line. I returned on Monday at 7am: still the line was incredibly long. I grew up in New York City but I have never even seen anything like this before, not even at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I thought to myself, I would be so pissed off if it were a tiny exhibit that was all hyped up for nothing. Luckily, I had nothing to fear. The exhibit was immense and well curated. I wandered through room after room of Picasso artworks reflecting all sort of styles and periods: cubist stuff, abstractionist stuff, stuff that looks like big block figures, stuff that looks like collages.

I was impressed with the « Grands Maitres » artworks on loan for the exhibit. I saw pieces by Titien, El Greco, Poussin, Velazquez, Zurburan, Rembrandt, Goya, Ingres, Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Degas, Cezanne, Renoir, Rousseau, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec. There were several more artists as well, but the above are the ones with whom I already have a familiarity with. Some of the pieces are of incredible renown. They were on loan from as close as the Louvre, the D'Orsay, and the L'Orangerie to as far as London, New York, and Moscow.

I was even more impressed with Picasso’s reinterpretation of these grand works. However, to be quite honest, I was a bit overwhelmed by it all. It was a lot to absorb. I think it takes a lot of background knowledge about Picasso's life, his work, and his many periods to really understand the exhibit. Fortunately, a quotation on one information plaque helped guide my analysis. Apparently, Picasso said « I paint in reaction to the paintings which count for me, but I also work with what the [imaginary] museum lacks. Look carefully ! It is just as important. You must do what is not there, what has never been done. » I thought to myself, so Picasso sort of stretches, or extends, what he sees.

I understood this extension when I saw Picasso’s Grand Baigneuse, a reaction to Pierre Auguste Renoir’s Baigneuse. Renoir’s bather is a full bodied woman rendered softly in light pastel colors. The atmosphere is serene. The lady is supposed to be bathing, but instead she seems frozen in time and lost in thought. Renoir’s depiction seems to strive for movement; her hands touch, or “bath”, a propped up leg. However, the mood is rather one of complete stillness. Perhaps the strongest indicator of this stillness is her gaze. She gazes upon her leg but she seems to be daydreaming instead of focusing on the task at hand. The contrast is a bit dissonant.

Picasso took this aspect of the painting and brought it to clear focus for us. His bather is similarly voluptuous and naked with just a cloth around her. The serenity of the scene is evident by her body language: her hands loosely hold a cloth, which seems ready to slip out at any moment. One leg is slack. As a reaction to Renoir, Picasso’s bather looks not at her body in a pretense of bathing, but is indeed lost in thought. Her large eyes daydream off into the distance to the left of the viewer. Picasso’s interpretation here is clear and poignant.

Even more interesting is Picasso’s reaction to JD Ingres’ painting of Paolo and Francesca. Ingres portrays the moment when Paolo leans forward to gently kiss Francesca on the cheek. Paolo’s desire is suggested by how far he is leaning over to kiss her; his body makes quite an acute angle. Francesca’s pleasure is evident by how she closes her eyes and swoons, dropping her book to the ground. In the background is an angry second guy who is coming up behind Paolo with a raised sword.

In reaction, Picasso created a series of pornographic drawings, rendered in a similar style to 17th and 18th century Japanese pornographic art that I’ve seen. The picture plane is flat and the lines quite simple. The figures are fluid. There is little shading or dimensionality. I was not able to read the plaque because the display case was crowded, so I am not sure of Picasso’s stylistic intent. But no, back to the point, the drawings were pornographic, intentionally distorted, and almost monstrous.

I will proceed in colloquial language because I think Picasso intended for that shock factor instead of trying to be all polite and understated about it. So here goes: Paolo is eating Francesca out. He has a huge hard-on. Francesca’s legs are wide open and you can see everything. Her head is tossed back and her face has an expression of crazy pleasure. And the angry second guy is peering around a corner, and has big scary claws. It is not a pretty scene. It is a carnal and animalistic scene. It is a scene that SCREAMS sex and danger in a more shocking way that Ingres’ painting.

I left with a deeper appreciation of how art can be a premeditated reaction to a source of inspiration. Mark Applebaum has shown us examples of this same type of innovation in music, dance, and literature (as well as art) during his Survey Class. All of this makes me quite excited to be producing my own art in Mark’s practicum class! Though I don’t think I can hold a candle to Picasso, maybe I will be able to come up with things that are similarly thought provoking.

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