The Picasso Century at the National Gallery of Victoria shows the man behind the myth

The Picasso Century gives you all the clues you need. The entire show is built around the artist’s friendships, decade by decade. The analytical catalog is more a parade of people than of photos, but it is useful for documenting the extent and glamor of Picasso’s circle – a who’s who of the intelligentsia of the first half of the 20th century.

Before Didier Ottinger of the Center Pompidou curated this exhibition, Picasso himself curated famous charismatic heavyweights such as – excluding dozens of visual artists – Apollinaire, Aragon, Bataille, Breton, Cocteau, Diaghilev, Éluard , Hemingway, Leiris, Malraux , Stein.

The Picasso Century it’s a good title because perhaps no artist so seductively carries the fantasies of his century. There were other contestants with a strong intellectual claim, but they didn’t set up their quarters and bios to be so sexy.

The studio in La Californie: Picasso wanted photographers to capture the productive mess of his large workspace.

The studio in La Californie: Picasso wanted photographers to capture the productive mess of his large workspace.Credit: Picasso Succession/Copyright Agency, 2022

Picasso became the archetypal artist in an age that was fond of archetypes. In the popular mind, he was seen as the progenitor of modern art: prolific, audacious, revolutionary, passionate, intuitive, a metaphorical killer licensed to be elegantly cruel. All of his flaws would be interpreted as a necessary aspect of genius.

Furthermore, Picasso was an enviable success, which made him a beacon of wish-fulfillment, living eternal creative vacations in exotic villas with voluptuous companions; and all this with a satisfying memory of having done it all in a Montmartre attic.

The authors of the catalog confess how much Picasso wanted photographers to capture the productive mess of his great studios. The celebrities selected for the privilege of visiting would multiply their tentacles in posterity.

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Picasso’s magic as a persona transcended aesthetics. You didn’t have to like his paintings; in your century, it was enough for you to recognize the archetype of the mercurial magician who breaks the rules.

One would say of all the modernists who freed art from the old academy. But in acquiring mythical status, Picasso emancipated the art public from the very need to judge images according to how well painted they are. Photos of him need only comply with the archetype’s terms.

But what do we think about this century? Inside The Picasso Century, there is little effort to explain how any of the works have a compelling aesthetic dimension. The discussion of social milieu, wars and affiliations is brilliant, but as for the poetic caliber of the photos, you’d have to find out for yourself.

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Had the exhibition been in the hands of Australian curators and writers, I dare say a different emphasis would have emerged. More critical attention would have been given to gender issues, and the word “primitivism” – even in quotation marks – would have been avoided.

But in the end, even with an Australian curator awake, the effort to demystify Picasso would be doomed. It would be like a bullfight where the bull wins.

The Picasso Century is on CNG until October 9

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