Picasso’s desperate obscenities: show of late works captures a still raging genius

Everyone runs out of steam eventually. In the case of Pablo Picasso, the process was lengthy and he fought it with flashes of fury, lust and wit. He obviously didn’t think of himself as old when, in his 70s, he posed bare-chested for the photograph that appears at the start of Bastian Gallery’s nostalgic tribute to his last studio, in postwar Cannes. Picasso would work as energetically as ever, right up to his death aged 91, leaving a heap of late works. But does the last quarter-century of his career actually add anything to the miracles that came before?

In 1900, as a teenage prodigy from Malaga via Barcelona, he visited Paris for the first time and painted brilliantly lurid scenes of dance halls and brothels. In 1907, he painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, torching centuries of western art in a savage conflagration that simultaneously invents cubism and surrealism. Still to come were stupendous orgies of destruction and creation and his most unexpected transformation of all, from sensual diarist of private life to public painter of modern history in Guernica.

Perhaps he should have retired after such wonders. Instead, in 1955, he set up studio at La Californie, a palatial villa in Cannes. It was his most theatrical working space – and perhaps that says something about his decline. He’d painted Les Demoiselles in a crumbling hovel in Montmartre, Paris, and Guernica in a dark loft on the Left Bank. Now here he was setting up his easel in an ample space done out in North African style.

L’Atelier claims to “reimagine Picasso’s Cannes Studio as an immersive experience within the gallery”, but it doesn’t do that with much precision. The Bastian Gallery in London’s Mayfair is a slender boutique that can’t begin to suggest the expansiveness of La Californie. It tries instead to capture the studio’s mix of work and home with pots arranged on a dresser, an empty wicker chair where Picasso might have sat contemplating his own works, and examples of the African sculptures he loved. Unfortunately, it’s all fake.

Studio in La Californie, Cannes
A room in Picasso’s La Californie, Cannes. Photograph: Courtesy of Bastian Gallery

These African pieces did not belong to him, which is an appalling sleight of hand. Picasso reverently collected world art and studied it closely. A photograph in this show portrays him sitting next to Nevimbumbaau, an Oceanian figurative headdress that is in the Musée Picasso in Paris. He never treated his beloved Pacific or African artworks as generic “ethnic” art, as this exhibition does. In one fatuous juxtaposition, we see a horned wooden carving from Nigeria next to his prints of the Minotaur and a faun, glib parallels of horny beasts.

As for seriously examining Picasso’s work from the 1950s to 1973, it turns out the show doesn’t do that, either. Throughout, late works are judiciously spiced up with 1930s masterpieces including a rare gem: Picasso’s illustrated edition of Aristophanes’s ancient Greek sex-strike comedy Lysistrata.

Yet this frankly deceptive exhibition is irresistible. Picasso may have been unfashionable in avant-garde circles after 1945, but this was when he became a mass celebrity. The photographs here by André Villers are how we picture Picasso, the muscular balding bullfight fan. His posters for southern French corridas are also exhibited here. This is a child-friendly Picasso, painting crazy faces on plates in a cartoon version of his cubist portraits.

Child-friendly moment … Picasso’s visage plates, 1963.
Child-friendly moment … Picasso’s visage plates, 1963. Photograph: Courtesy of Bastian Gallery

It’s usually assumed that Salvador Dalí was the first celebrity artist but Picasso also knew how to husband and enjoy fame. The difference was his genius. Even when waning, it still astounds. Two etchings from 1969 show a woman lying nude, not gracefully recumbent but displaying her thighs and what’s between them to his insatiable eye. He draws it all in clear black lines with no reworking. You feel the speed, the urgency. She is so solid, so carnal – it seems incredible an artist can make someone so physically real with just a line.

Here is the Picasso Mystery, as a 1950s film of him at work was called: a magician who can spin new perceptions of life from a simple sketch or turn a plate into a living thing. Sex is life for him and, in his last attempts to fan the flame, there is a kind of desperate obscenity. In his 1972 drawing Two Nudes and Male Heads, he seems to return in memory to the Montmartre brothels he discovered at 19. A man and naked woman watch an erotic display. It’s awful, unforgettable stuff.

Picasso in old age was outrageous and a bit pathetic, playing up to the role of the veteran creative toreador while torturing himself in his studio as he tried to recapture the priapic energy of his youth. Yet perhaps this is the most human and inspiring Picasso of all – a genius who stepped down from his pedestal to fail and struggle with the rest of us, who can still make art that can open your senses to life like no other. The artist here isn’t perfect. He’s much greater than that.

Atelier Picasso is at Bastian Gallery, London, 3 September to 31 October.

The Guardian

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