Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Weeping Woman, the power and the glory

Picasso's Weeping Woman as shoulder-bag
IN 1937, at the age of 55, Pablo Picasso was already widely regarded as the greatest living painter.
His Blue Period, his Rose Period, his African Period, his development of Cubism and collage, his neoclassical phase and what he regarded as his two finest works – Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and The Three Dancers – were all behind him.
He was not yet known as a political or ‘protest’ painter. But the civil war that had broken out in his native land, Spain, appalled him.
In April 1937 German bombers joined in the carnage, virtually destroying the Basque town of Guernica. It was an act of unprovoked savagery with no obvious point or meaning.
Later it would appear simply to have been a practice run for the Nazis’ coming attacks on Poland and elsewhere. At the time it horrified the world by its apparent randomness, and inspired what is probably Picasso’s best-known painting.
If you were to take a poll among art critics to determine the finest 20th century painting, I suspect his Guernica would come out top.
The huge – three and a half metres long – mural-style blast of surrealist anguish, all done in shades of grey and black, was commissioned by the doomed Spanish Republican government and is now on show in Madrid.
But it was not Picasso’s only artistic response that year to the horrors of the Spanish war. The other – along with a few preliminary sketches and other treatments of the same subject – is currently in London in the exhibition Picasso and Modern British Art at Tate Britain.
In dramatic contrast to the monochrome gloom of Guernica (present only in the form of a half-size photographic reproduction), The Weeping Woman is rendered in strong, almost garish, colours.
It is much smaller, a life-size head and shoulders, yet to my mind rivals the larger work for emotional power. It is exquisite, and exceptionally sad.
Unlike Guernica, you can stand close to it and take it all in, absorb it at the purely human, face-to-face level. To do so is alone worth the cost of entrance to the exhibition.
Seeing great art up close is always a more intense experience than you can get from any reproduction (though books and prints have the advantage that you don’t have to jostle with other gallery-goers to get a good look).
There is something disturbing about the belittling commodification of art in the souvenir shop. How much is lost, though – and what awkward questions raised – by the conversion of The Weeping Woman from oil-on-canvas to print-on-shoulderbag.
Yet that is the form in which I (or, rather, my 12-year-old) brought the work away.
And it has to be said that it makes a great fashion accessory, even if most of Picasso’s original emotive intent has been lost in the transition from art to mere design.
I wonder what Picasso himself would have thought. Come to that, I wonder what the great man, who in 1944 joined the French Communist Party, would have made of the fact that rich collectors have spent more on his works than those of any other artist. Perhaps, being as much egotist as leftist, he wouldn’t much have minded.
The Tate exhibition, meanwhile, is a good opportunity to see a smattering of those works together.
It’s not very kind, though, to those British artists whose efforts are hung alongside the Picassos.
Only the abstract, and occasionally faintly surreal, work of Ben Nicholson may possibly have influenced Picasso. Otherwise the influence appears to have been all one way.
And while others may make a case for the sculptor Henry Moore, for me only the work of Graham Sutherland comes close to living with the Picassos on almost equal terms.
Sutherland (1903-1980) is an under-rated artist, possibly because of his religious themes and overt Catholicism. His Crucifixion and Deposition, purely as depictions of human suffering, stand up well alongside Picasso’s Weeping Woman, which is no mean feat.
By contrast, the Picasso-wannabe Duncan Grant (1885-1979) appears an unskilled dauber and the currently lionised David Hockney as a distinctly minor talent.
The extraordinary achievement of Picasso, clearly on view in this exhibition, is to have taken on almost every art movement or style of the 20th century and done most of them better than anyone else. A couple of endearingly inferior early Impressionist works only underscore that point.
He also happens to have answered that difficult question “What is art?” better than most.
“Art,” he said, “is a lie that makes us realise the truth.”

HAS the government really performed an immediate U-turn on plans to legalise state snooping on all our emails, phone-calls, texts and internet connections?
Have they realised that this is, as one commentator put it, “among the most serious threats to freedom in the democratic world”?
That, as the Tories’ own former leadership candidate David Davis said, it “would be expensive, unnecessary, and a huge invasion of everybody’s privacy”?
That the hitherto complaisant LibDem MPs might actually rebel on this issue – and some Tories too?
Or is their manifesto pledge on civil liberties really as worthless as David Cameron’s election promise that the NHS would be “safe” with him?
It all seems a little unclear just now.
But there is a delightful aptness in the suggestion that we should protest by sending copies of all our emails – the more of them, and the more trivial the better – direct to home secretary Theresa May at

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