The AGNSW’s current Blockbuster (that’s capital ‘B’ – this is BIG), Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris could be the best thing I have seen in the last 5 years. Hell, it could be the best thing I have ever seen.

Curated by the Musée National Picasso’s Director, Anne Baldassari (and a fitting swansong to retiring AGNSW Director, the urbane and sharp Edmund Capon), this huge-in-every-way exhibition is drawn from Picasso’s own collection of Picassos. These are the paintings that, out of an enormous and prolifically brilliant oeuvre of work, resonated deeply with Picasso, so he kept them. After his death, his family handed them over to the French government in lieu of punative taxes. Now, after all these years, they are visiting Australia.

Baldassari has divided the works chronologically into 10 sections which occupy 10 rooms. This intelligent template is essential here as Picasso’s work is dizzyingly fecund – in the middle of one ‘period’ there are works that are totally out of character; motifs and emblems randomly pop up here and there, sometimes with gaps of 20 years between them. The 10 rooms give a logical ‘shape’ to what was an explosive and restless artistic life, a life that changed not only 20th century Art but the 20th century itself.

We move from Picasso’s early youth – where at 13 he displayed traits of genius – to his move to Paris, through the African influences, onto Cubism and Neo-Classicism, via brushes with Surrealism (Picasso rarely joined any movement he didn’t start himself), through wartime and onto his last decades, the 60’s and 70’s.

That’s the art history timeline: the works are something else again.

“When I was a child, I could draw like Raphael, but it took me a lifetime to draw like a child.” Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris lays out this lifetime with work after work of stunning beauty, of stunning ugliness, of staggering invention within invention and of harrowing honesty. Picasso’s great gift to Western Art (among multiple gifts) was the miraculous twinning of great humanity with genius facility. He could paint what he felt and he could make you feel it too, till it hurt. He rarely hid behind technique, despite his technique being without match – check some of the drawing studies he made at age 13 – and equally, he never made it easy for us either (I stood next to many fellow visitors who seemed to see these paintings as a kind of find-a-word puzzle, “I think I can see the guitar… is that the woman’s head?…”)

All of it is bursting with life and a kind of vigour that speaks loud poetry into the void. Sex and masculinity pops up (literally) everywhere, yet the stupidly simplified image of Pablo Picasso as a young misogynist and later a horny old goat is belied by many tender images of his lovers. His electric yellow portrait of photographer Dora Maar, his striking paintings of Jacqueline Roque (a woman who looks as if fashioned from a Picasso painting, rather than the other way around) show a deep love and desire higher than just lust. His 1934 image of lover Marie-Therese Walter (almost 30 years his junior), ‘Nude In A Garden’ however, is pornographic pure and simple – she is reduced to a purplish-pink mound of flesh with all orifices exposed, her head arched back in pain/ecstacy. Yet the same young lover is also shown in ‘Reclining Woman Reading’, a calm study of placid beauty.

Many of these images of women hint at an insecurity – even when portraying himself as a minotaur (half-man/half bull shagging machine) as he did later in life, the women in these drawings are calmly statuesque and coolly indomitable. In fact many of the last paintings, drawings and sculptures from the last years obsess on male power, youth, energy and the young body, as his own strength waned.

There is one painting though – the last picture in the last room – that, if your heart has not yet been broken by anything else in the show, will break it. It is called ‘The Young Painter’. Painted by Picasso in 1972 at age 91, it is a few grey and a few blue-green strokes of paint which depicts a child in a hat, holding a brush. The eyes of the young painter are wide, excited orbs; he is ready to start this remarkable life all over again. “When I was a child, I could draw like Raphael, but it took me a lifetime to draw like a child.” This is a painting of the child that Picasso worked all his life to become.

Published January 2012 on liveguide.com.au

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