Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Picasso: the Mediterranean Years Gagosian Gallery, London - The Independent

It is always quite difficult to know what to do with Picasso. We have seen too much of him already, almost everywhere. Our shelves are already groaning with brick-heavy catalogues. We think we know him already, top-to-toe, every period, thematically, stylistically. Our children paint like him every day. Can there be room for yet another major show of his work? Well yes, perhaps, because there is so always much of him. According to his biographer John Richardson, he made about three objects a day almost every day of his life. He worked all day almost every day, and often for most of the night. His advice to a young painter was: if you want to do something, do it. He was the exemplar of his own approach: he never stopped doing. Only death slowed him down, and the work he has created for his successors – critics, taxonomists, dealers, sexologists, bankers, criminals and forgers on every continent – has been enormous. Even when he was not at his best, he was interesting, turning over one idea after another, trying to quicken materials into life. The wonder is that he should have triumphed so often. The sadness is that he made so much, and tried so hard, that we are often obliged to stare at much that is only fairly good. That is the case with this show. It’s a Picasso taxonomist’s delight, and it deals with the relatively neglected decade and a half which culminated in his eightieth birthday. Yet another Picasso emerged after that, which has already been the subject of a major show at Gagosian.

This is a portrait of Picasso in the post-war years. Post Paris. Post austerity. Re-entering his own birthright beside the Mediterranean Sea (he was born in Malaga) in the south of France. Basking in the sunny warmth of his acclaim and success. And, of course, quite befittingly, the mood has changed dramatically. Much of the greyness has drained away from his palette; a new playfulness has entered into the making. He is creating different kinds of things too, including huge quantities of ceramics and sculptures, large and small. These ceramic objects and these sculptures are the best things in the show. Many of the paintings – the portraits of women, for example – are dull ‘revisitings’ (ie often rather poor near-copies) of his stylistic mannerisms of the past. But these sculptures! They have a reckless derring do about them – look at the gorgeous girl skipping, torso fashioned from an old basket, which faces you as you enter the main gallery, or the wooden sculpture, fashioned from sticks and blocks, so delightfully crude, of a mother winging her child up into the air. These are sculptures which seem to say: what have I to lose by making this at breakneck speed from the unpromising stuff that surrounds me in the studio or just outside? Or examine the wonderful baboon whose face has been made from a toy car. Who but Picasso would have pressed that car into service in this way? There is an intense preoccupation with children, for themselves, and at play. He paints children enjoying themselves with a reckless childishness, as they might have painted themselves had they been him. You spot it the moment you enter into the central gallery, children everywhere, represented in painting and sculpture. His own children – sleepy-eyed Paloma, for example. There were always so many to choose from. One or two were even legitimate. Always so much to do, always so many jismic marvels.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), The Independent, London

She was the first artist to be invited to make something of the Tate Modern’s near impossibly unwelcoming Turbine Hall in the year 2000, and what she created was entirely characteristic of her art from first to last – a nasty, long-legged spider on a giant scale to keep watch over us from the overhead bridge, and three horribly impersonal steel watchtowers to keep us under surveillance at ground level. South Armagh meets a hair-raising denizen of the dense jungle, you might say.

Surveillance is a word which resonates when it comes to appraising the art of the extraordinarily long-lived and ceaselessly productive Louise Bourgeois. Usually it is the onlooker who appraises the work of art. After all, is it not the onlooker’s privilege, having paid the price, to do so? It was the opposite with Bourgeois. When you entered a room of work by her, you felt stripped bare all of a sudden, as if voices were shouting questions into your ears, demanding some explanation of why you had lived as you had lived. It seems almost surprising that death should have caught up with her at last, that she is no longer alive to jab the bony finger.

Another entirely fitting word would be a coining of Albert Camus’: dis-ease. Not unease. That would be too easy. Camus’s word means that we are somehow complicit in our own undermining, that we may have brought on our sufferings by being precisely what we are. No, you never felt comfortable in the presence of a work by Bourgeois.

You felt, somehow, that you were not only under scrutiny, but even that you were being played with, even terrorized, as Hitchcock so often played with you. Things could only get worse. The staging always helped – and the props of her installations, which often consisted of old doors, bits of shabby furniture, creaky beds, bleak, prison-perimeter meshing, often organised in strange, seemingly ever shrinking circles. Shabby old doors enclosed tiny moments of oppressive, shabby domesticity, dreams of a nightmarishly unhappy childhood perhaps. So little looked pristine. Almost everything seemed gimcrack, just off the skip, pressed into service against its will, unhappily re-livingg its own wailingly posthumous life. The whole effect was always so unsettlingly dramatic, almost ghoulishly filmic. There was always so much darkness, so many pockets of eeriness in which dread could be left to propagate. There would be deep thrusting shadows to witness, or strange corners to turn before you entered, in the case of her many ‘Cells’, the desolate, three-dimensional structures with which much of the exhibition space was filled at her last major retrospective at Tate Modern, which happened just three years ago, when she was already climbing the long hill, undaunted, towards her hundredth birthday.

She was female all right, but she never fell victim to that old clich̩ of the essential softness of the feminine. She was soft only in the way that well worn leather boots are soft. She wrenched the feminine about in her work; she made us feel on our pulses what it was to be a woman who suffers the excruciating physical tumult of childbirth. There was eroticism a-plenty, but it was an eroticism stepping out in conjunction with pain. Many of the objects she made looked like anthropological specimens, artefacts which threw back at us our own peculiar cultural habits. One entire gallery in that Tate show was organised to look like such a museum display. She picked us apart, bit by bit, and then sewed us back together again, with an ungainly lumpishness. She never held up the idea of the human for glorification or celebration. She was no female Michelangelo. Nor was she a surrealist, though she knew many of them, and she moved in their circles. For all that, her kind of psychological disclosure was theirs too: to expose the often repulsive underside of things, those secretly oozy that we can barely acknowledge about ourselves, the grossness of the human, the worm that ceaselessly turns in all our buds. Some of her most celebrated works were her soft sculptures Рshe inherited from her parents a love of sewing Рmade from fabrics and stuffing. She helped to dignify the idea of softness, to give it gravity and feeling.

She never ceased to change and change again. Her sculptures were such weird things, as much animistic as modernist. Her whole spirit seems to be summed up in this tiny extract from her diary, written when she was a mere 70 years of age, and with much of her long, wayward creative road still to travel: ‘The only access we have to our volcanic unconscious and to the profound motives for our actions and reactions is through the shocks of our encounters with specific people’. Such telling words. Those shocks she felt are the same shocks that we experience, time and again, when we come up against her bruising work.

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