“Art is subjective” this statement, true as it might seem, does not account for the very small percentage of artwork that are considered great and important. So the question remains as to what makes a painting, sculpture, performance, video, installation… a masterpiece, and more importantly what makes the creator worthy of such honor?
You might come closer to an answer if you happen to be in Toronto and pay a visit to the Picasso exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, for the organisers have set up the show in a way that demands a connection between the audience and that genius of 20th century art, which results in a nod of agreement as to his greatness.
The first painting you are faced with in the exhibition is the dead figure of the poet and painter Carlos Casagemas, who had shot himself over unrequited love for Germaine Pichot. This event had a tremendous effect on his friend Picasso, who here depicts Casagemas in a manner that is full of emotional sorrow; and yet in the painting there is a candle lit by the corpse, as if Picasso is saying from this sacrifice was born something worthwhile. Engulfing darkness has given birth to light, and that light is Art.
Picasso’s Blue Period subsequently followed the death of Carlos Casagemas, and one gets a clear feeling that this death of a friend gave birth to those haunting paintings. Picasso is allowing his story to dictate the story he is recounting for us. He is not just painting a witch like woman with one eye, he is painting his utter alienation and woe. He wrote later: “I started painting in blue when I learned of Casagemas’s death”.
Throughout the exhibition in Toronto, we have a feeling that Picasso is communicating his ideas and feelings to us. We feel special, because we are right there with him. When he is in love with Olga, his first wife, and paints her in academic style adorned with expensive garments, we feel cheerful for him. When he takes another lover, Marie-Thérèse, and decides to show us how he feels about being married to Olga by painting her like a praying mantis on a beach full of jagged lines, whilst at the same time giving Marie-Thérèse all the curves of a goddess, we are right there in on the secret.
Picasso wrote: “I paint the way some people write an autobiography. The paintings, finished or not, are the pages from my diary.” My point is that the viewer is being told a personal story with every painting, and Modernism with all its efforts to destroy the story, succumbs to its power. Granted the tales are no longer of the gods, saints, myths or the rich and powerful, nevertheless they are stories of ideas and humanity with all its flaws and ugliness. And the viewer feels the artist’s emotions in his work, feels the sorrow, feels the anger, feels the love and passion, and that is why we like them.
If Picasso had given us a bowl of fruits without inserting his own idea of what Modern art should look like, or without a message to the viewer as to how he or she should feel, we would simply disregard it, as many bowls of fruits have been in the past, as insignificant nonsensical paintings. What makes Picasso a great artist is the fact that we get his point, we seek meaning within those lines and prime colors, and that is fundamentally what makes his art sit comfortably above others’ working in his era.
Every single artist we consider great presented a personal message with their work. Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Bernini, Titian, Rubens, David, Delacroix, Manet, Turner, Goya… they had all conveyed their feelings to the viewer, they had made a connection, they had told a personal story. We might not agree or even like their message or the story, that is where the subjective part comes in, but we have considered them and agreed upon the fact that they have been expressed in a poignant manner.
Personally, I only like Picasso when he is finding common grounds with humanity like in Guernica, and I could not care less for his womanizing and display of female sexuality as submissive; however I must agree that he allowed us into his world and told us about who he was through his art, and that alone is worth a train ticket to Toronto.
Picasso exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario will be on in Toronto until August 2012