THE PICASSO WRANGLE
By MICHAEL AYRTON
THIS controversy is like old times. Not since the " roaring twenties " has so much sound and fury been spent on an exhibition as on the current one of Picasso at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Fury from the elderly and sound from the green. The correspondence columns in the several organs of the Press which are giving space to something serious for once at least show that people are taking an interest in painting after five gloomy years. Not that the letters themselves are very enlightening, for they mostly consist of a peevish senility or an uncritical idolatry, which cancel each other out as equally worthless.
There remains, however, a body of the genuinely and reasonably bewildered, and these are worth time and trouble. The elderly apoplectics would be well advised to realise that there comes a time in most people's lives when their opinions become as hard as their arteries and they can no longer take in new sensations. No matter what wisdom and experience may back their judgement of what they understand, their vocal resentment of what they manifestly do not only serves to make them look ridiculous. Waving umbrellas, and demanding that an exhibition of the work of two great figures in contemporary painting be closed is simply silly. It does not follow that anything beyond the comprehension of certain elderly worthies is a dastardly imposture. The art of Picasso is no hoax, t nor is it to be ignorantly condemned on any such grounds as that it is " disgusting," or that a " child of ten could do better," or any such tedious nonsense. This form of pseudo-criticism has been laughed out of court since the first " Post-Impressionist " exhibition more than thirty years ago, when many people made fools of themselves in condemning the pictures of Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and others in similar terms.
But—and herein lies the crux of the whole dispute—the opposi- tion is principally manned by an equally irresponsible body ; Picasso's fans, whose opinions, far from being encrusted with the prejudice of years, are glutinous with that dazzled and juve- nile idolatry so familiar in recent European politics are here seen responding to a form of art with the same untempered enthusiasm. The idolaters are, in fact, as ludicrously prejudiced as the grey- beards. The result is a shindy for which any artist would give his eye-teeth, since it does nothing more than spread his reputation. Picasso himself is, as far as I know, stili possessed of his full dental equipment, and now sits back with a quiet smile to watch the balloon go up. The " right wing," if it may be so described, lumps Picasso and " modern art " together as disgraceful, therein display- ing a complete ignorance of this wide field. The " left," with equal vigour, makes it plain that to say a word against Picasso is tanta- mount to admiring Alma Tadema above all others—complete phili- stinism in fact. Ever since I discharged a verbal popgun at Picasso over the radio last April I have been subjected to letters of abuse from the cogno- scenti and letters of praise from blimps. I wish to establish the fact that I regard both camps with equal amusement. I maintain that it is possible to dislike the art of Picasso without disapproving of everything painted since 187o. Last week a well-intentioned corre- spondent asked me to try to " see facts with the intensity of an artist," which same I have tried to do for as long as I can remem- ber, though the results may lead to difference of opinion. The present edition of The Spectator contains a poppet of a lettet accus- ing me of " vehement contempt " for Picasso and adding several epithets as heart-warming to me as any cast at the artist in ques- tion must be to him. Now, if there is one thing in the world which I have never felt for Picasso it is contempt. I have repeatedly, voiced my admiration for his superb powers, and if I pay his work the passionate compliment of hating it, it is the most sincere tri- bute he could ask of anyone ; love and hate being the two deepest emotions.
I refuse, however, to regard everything that Picasso does as of equal quality ; he has produced a greater body of work than any artist who has ever lived, of which a small portion is simply bad, a vast portion brilliantly performed, and the remainder so impressive as to be, in one sense, great. Why then, " vicious and misleading bigot " that I am, do I come out against this giant when everyone, , but fools and philistines, acknowledges his greatness? To the best of my ability, I will attempt to enlighten the intelligent people who have honestly said that they wish they knew what Picasso was driving at, for I do not believe that it is difficult to understand the art of Picasso, once one has grasped the salient features of his method.
Picasso, as everyone knows, differs from the masters of the past in that he has worked in a great variety of styles, leaping backward and forwards from one to another, apparently at random. The reason why he has been able to do this is that he has taken an already existing manner in art—the Greek, the Romanesque, that of Ingres and Cezanne,, for example—as a starting-point in each case, and pursued it to a conclusion. The one thing he has not done is to react visually to nature, but always he has followed the cerebral practice of experimenting with art itself. His life work is, in fact, a superlative paraphrase of art. He has fed upon art, and is there- fore a vampire of art, and this is quite different from the influence of one artist upon another, or the traditions which a young artist follows to guide him as he grows up. To question the sincerity of Picasso's deadly procedure, to regard it as a joke, is tanta- mount to confusing Paradise Lost with Charley's Aunt. There is no hoax, only the terrible power of a man who has sucked the history of painting dry and built himself a monument with its bones.
Much has been made of his wonderful vision of the tragedy of our times, but is that the real content of Picasso's recent work? The symbols of the bull's head, the reclining nude, the seated woman, are those he has used for thirty years as themes For his variations ; the cliché of the double-eyed profile derived from medieval Catalan wall-painting has been in Picasso's use since 1927, together with the curvilinear, hieratic pose of the familiar figure in the chair. Where, then, is the profound expression of Belsen and the destruction of Nagasaki, where is suffering Europe? When Picasso based his " Guernica " on the mannerisms of the sixteenth century expressionist, Mathias Griinewald, he was making an attempt to restate suffering, if in another man's terms, jazzed up with all his own mastery of the medium. One could point to the agony in that picture, for though it still owed more to art than observation it transcended the pastiche. But these recent pictures are a recapitulation of his usual modus operandi, and they differ from the general output of Picasso's last fifteen years only in that they are without any.respect for the medium of paint. "Old shoes " in fact and badly worn.
To those who wish to understand the art of Picasso I say let them study the history of painting, for then they will be able to observe in his work the most brilliant, the most perverse, and the most deadly parody ever created by man or devil. And let others
reconsider their allegiance to the most destructive force which paint- ing has ever had to face, but let no one suggest that this is a huge joke, and let no one suggest that these pictures should not be seen, for not to see and recognise a master, whether of good or evil, is to bury one's head in philistine sands.