Picasso Museum, from the Barcelona notebook

picasso-museum-ticket-faceSeptember already, and it’s humbling to note that I’ve fallen well short of the rather unambitious two post per month minimum I’d set for myself when I started this blog, not so long ago. Well, it was a busy summer.

Going through some old papers recently I came across a notebook I’d kept while travelling through Spain around the turn of the century. So in lieu of our not-so-regular programming, I thought I could fill in with my impressions of the Picasso museum in Barcelona, circa 13 years ago.


May 9, 2000

… Beautiful old building, liked the patios with the pigeons. They should see about getting some doves.

I’d been hoping to see some of the ceramic work from Vallauris and was not disappointed; it was the first thing on display. What incredible vitality, inventiveness and humour, especially when he wasn’t trying too hard.

The rest of the collection, well … It was rather like the beginning and end of a story, with the most important part missing. In a way, this gives the remaining bits more drama, because the process of transition is largely absent. Like seeing a snapshot of a young man – lively, talented, hopeful – next to a photo of the same man, 60 years later, old, ugly and cynical. What happened?

Of course, in Picasso’s case we know what happened – the 20th century, two world wars & the death of the European tradition of painting. So much of his work is about that, all those Velasquez spin-offs both paying homage and poking fun in a manner that clearly states, “this is the endgame”.

And the last etchings … well, whatever else his achievements it seems doubtful that the man attained to any kind of wisdom in his last years, any kind of peace within himself. Technically adroit, at times brilliant, but ultimately the last testament of a bitter old man whose imagination fed off increasingly meagre resources. Picasso wasn’t stupid, he must have known what he was doing and there is courage in such honesty. But it is sad, because it is ultimately a confession of failure: his work chronicled the demise of the European tradition because he was its last great exponent, but he couldn’t, for all his inventiveness, save that tradition, or refashion it and make it new again.

But it wasn’t really his fault, he needed a new myth … although why he abandoned at last the constellation of mythic elements he had cobbled together over the years – the Minotaur/matador, the girl with the lamp, the fishers, the Commedia del’ Arte figures which at one time or another had provided the support of myth – is a mystery, to me anyway. It would be amazing to have that repertoire to draw from. But perhaps he went too often to the well, found it was at last too unbelievable, too dishonest …


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Postscript, 2013: In case it’s not obvious from the foregoing, I’m a big fan of Picasso. And I’m not sure I’d have such a negative response if I went back today. But I think the central insight, that it’s the beginning and end with no middle, and that the end was rather dismal, is something I’d still agree with. Most of the middle, of course, is at the Picasso Museum in Paris, and rightly so.

I recall that someone once plastered a photocopy of a Picasso quote, “It has taken me my whole life to learn how to paint like a child,” around the printmaking huts at UBC back when I was a student there. Having seen the late works of Picasso in Barcelona, I sincerely hope that when I am an old man, I have sense enough to paint like one.

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