"Everything we got by Pablo Picasso" is not much of a curatorial concept, or so it turns out in the new exhibition, "Picasso in the Metropolitan Museum of Art," Apr. 27-Aug. 1, 2010. Arranged chronologically -- a room for the youthful Toulouse-Lautrec-inspired works, a room for the Blue Period, a room for Cubism, and so on, with two large galleries holding woodcuts and etchings at the end -- the show has an awkward rhythm of too familiar iconic pictures interspersed with uninspiring also-rans. Sort of like a long snake that has swallowed a whole lot of mice.
But it is what it is -- 300 works, 200 of them prints (with another 200 remaining in the stacks), the second largest Picasso holding in the U.S. The Met’s very first Picasso acquisition, as museum director Thomas Campbell explains in the catalogue foreword, was the 1906 portrait of Gertrude Stein, which the writer gave to the museum in 1947. She still looks like a real hard case.
Some of the works are rarely if ever on view, including the infamous Erotic Scene (La Douleur) from 1902 or ’03, which shows the smirking artist leaning back like Goya’s Maja while being fellated by a long-haired, big-bosomed blue babe. At ca. 28 x 22 in., the painting is larger than it seems in illustrations. And is it authentic? In conversation during his more bourgeois period, Picasso had disavowed it, saying the picture was a joke by friends. Exhibition curator Gary Tinterow is doubtful, but in the end judges it genuine, since he finds it listed in Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler’s inventory, and thus implicitly verified by Picasso.
It’s amusing to play connoisseur with such a work. Isn’t the blue added as an afterthought, like it would be by a pasticheur? Isn’t the woman’s right arm a little too uncertain to come from the master’s hand? And what about the face in the artist’s self-portrait, done in a distinct color, and thus perhaps daubed on as an afterthought?
In a futile effort to sort out Picasso’s many wives and lovers -- his favorite subject, after all -- I had come fortified with the iPod audiobook version of Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington’s Picasso: Creator and Destroyer, originally published in 1988. The young Arianna paints the artist as an inveterate cocksman, so heartless that he might be compared to the space vampires that relentlessly suck the life out of everyone around them in Tobe Hooper’s cult sci-fi movie Lifeforce (1985). It’s a hard reading to resist.
Thus, it is possible to catalogue the paintings in the show in terms of the indignities suffered by their subjects. A great Surrealist-era picture of Picasso’s long-suffering wife, Olga Khokhlova, portrayed as a pinhead ballerina dancing on legs like stone cliffs, is hung facing a row of three beauteous portraits of Marie-Thérèse Walter, the 17-year-old swept up off the street and mesmerized by a 45-year-old Picasso (she hung herself a few years after Picasso’s death in 1974). Nearby are two of Picasso’s notably ugly paintings of Dora Maar, looking as nutty as she seems to have been -- she had a nervous breakdown at the end of their affair -- though the Met has none of the pictures of her weeping made famous by Guernica.
I didn’t see any paintings of his next lover, Françoise Gilot, who reported that Picasso once burned her cheek with a cigarette in a fit of rage. She was better able than most to resist his baleful influence, which included denying their two illegitimate children (Claude and Paloma) the use of his surname. And Picasso’s final caretaker during his last two decades, his second wife Jacqueline Roque, the subject of perhaps 400 Picasso portraits, is represented by the 1960 Head of a Woman. She was 25 when they met (he was 71), and she famously shot herself in the head after the artist’s death.
Hung almost as afterthoughts by the audiovisual room are two great late Picasso musketeer paintings, made after the artist’s 1965 prostate surgery, which while it may have left him impotent did little to lessen his interest in sex. In this context, a certain greenish dismay seems to infect the look on the face of the graying swashbuckler in Woman and Musketeer (1967), even as he is faced by a fleshy young nude who could hardly wear a more avidly brainless expression.
From the same period is the famous 347 Suite of etchings, printed by Aldo and Piero Crommelynck and published by Galerie Louise Leiris in 1968, which fills a large gallery at the end of the Met show. Every one of the 347 pictures is erotic -- several depict Raphael ravishing La Fornarina -- and this orgy of lasciviousness raises a final question: Will the Picasso Era finally come to an end?
"Picasso in the Metropolitan Museum of Art," Apr. 27-Aug. 1, 2010, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.