The enormous excitement that greeted the Rembrandt self-portrait from Kenwood House, recently on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has left me feeling a little sheepish, because my reaction was so much less enthusiastic than that of many people I know. In this extraordinarily famous painting, the artist stands before us in the clear light of day, his palette in his left hand, his face rumpled and pale, his small dark eyes uneasy. There is no presumption of personal attractiveness, only the blunt assertion of a man’s presence. I certainly know what it means to respond to Rembrandt’s alchemy—to the way his paint-laden brush transfixes naturalism, giving humdrum verisimilitude the golden aura of transcendent theatricality, a theatricality with a truth that trumps mere truth. But in the Kenwood self-portrait Rembrandt’s appeal to our sympathies strikes me as too naked, too much a matter of pure naturalistic technique, not enough transposed into the language of form—and thus lacking some saving objectivity. Of course many people disagree.
I would not be bringing this up now—the painting has left the Metropolitan—except that I discovered, reading Virginia Woolf’s Diaries the other day, that my experience is perhaps not so entirely strange. In December 1918, Woolf was visiting the National Gallery with her close friend, the critic and painter Roger Fry. He was not in a good mood, feeling that “people hate art & him for loving it.” Woolf and Fry were moving through the galleries, and stopped in front of a Rembrandt. “I thought a Rembrandt ‘very fine,’” Woolf wrote in her diary, “which to him was mere melodrama.” And this left me thinking—“Aha, that’s somewhat how I felt about the Kenwood Rembrandt.” Woolf goes on, describing her back-and-forth with Fry, obviously interested and responsive to his reactions, although surely unwilling to deny her own. “A little El Greco conveyed little until he illumined it; showed how it held more real color than any other picture there. Then the Ingres was repulsive to me; & to him one of the most marvelous of designs. I always feel, too, that to like the wrong things, or fail in sufficiently liking the right jars on him, like false notes, or sentimentality in writing.” So here we have Roger Fry, one of the key spokesman for formal values in the visual arts, sparring in a friendly fashion with Virginia Woolf, whose formal inventions in the realm of fiction are second to none. And clearly Woolf feels that Fry finds her too quick to respond to what he regards as sentiment and melodrama—what she probably regards as feeling. And I also suspect that Woolf thinks her friend may be too strongly armored against those reactions.
Nearly a century after Woolf and Fry wandered through the National Gallery, many sophisticated people regard formal values as little more than reactionary values—as if Fry’s fascination with “design” were by definition a flight from life’s tough, complicated realities. I think I know why these sophisticated gallerygoers hold Picasso in higher esteem than any other modern artist—and have responded with such unalloyed enthusiasm to the Picasso exhibitions organized by John Richardson for the Gagosian Gallery. The anti-formalists—along with a whole variety of people who are skeptical about anything like old-fashioned modern values—like to revel in what they see as Picasso’s refusal to ever finally allow form to trump or even subsume feeling. They may in fact project conflicts onto Picasso that he never had. The latest installment in Gagosian’s explorations of the master, “Picasso and Françoise Gilot: Paris-Vallauris, 1943-1953,” mounted in the gallery’s Madison Avenue space, is not as sumptuous or as resonant as the exhibitions of the late Picasso and of the Marie-Thérèse period seen in Chelsea in the past few years, but this show does provide an unusually penetrating view of the workings of Picasso’s imagination. And the truth is that in this decade that begins before the end of World War II, Picasso was not operating with anything like the lucidity and daring of a few years before or a few years later. The fascination here is not so much in the great works this exhibition contains—although there are a few—but in the sense of a visionary struggling to move forward, searching in past triumphs for the catalyst to future discoveries.
And to think about Picasso’s imagination is to find ourselves right back with Roger Fry and Virginia Woolf at the National Gallery, because there is no modern artist who has struggled more mightily than Picasso to reconcile the rival claims of sentiment and design. The impossible conflict of his years with Françoise Gilot was that try as he might, he could never find a structure compelling enough to crystallize her youthful beauty. Even his finest portraits of her—Richardson speaks of the Femme-fleur—feel programmatic, at least compared to his earlier responses to Fernande Olivier, Marie-Thérèse Walter, Dora Maar, or, later, to Jacqueline Roque. Perhaps the nearly endless transformations he wrecked on several lithographic studies of Françoise—the Gagosian show contains a large number of these states—suggest his unease, his inability to find a pictorial language to express his ardent emotions. Two of the finest works in this exhibition have little or nothing to do with the demands of portraiture. The 1953 painted wood assemblage, Femme portant un enfant, some five-and-a-half feet high, abstracts the mother-and-child relationship through the metaphor of a sculpture that is like something a child might dream up with building blocks. And the great 1950 Vallauris landscape, Paysage d’hiver, turns away from the affective dilemmas of portraiture entirely. Picasso had not been so fully committed to the art of landscape since his studies of the Spanish village of Horta, done in the early Cubist years.
Paysage d’hiver is a tragic landscape, the earth unwilling or at least reluctant to deliver its bounty. This painting is deeply indebted to the View of Toledo by El Greco, the artist whose case Fry had pleaded before Woolf during their visit to the National Gallery. Françoise Gilot—who collaborated with Richardson on the Gagosian exhibition and whose paintings and drawings of those years are included—believes Paysage d’hiver is an allegory, the trees and buildings standing for Picasso and Gilot and Matisse. And what is an allegory but a way of formalizing feelings? No modern artist struggled as consistently as Picasso to do just that—often with success, sometimes not. It is interesting to consider the whole question of Rembrandt and melodrama in relation to Picasso, because well after his breakup with Gilot it was by turning to the art of Rembrandt, particularly Rembrandt’s prints, that Picasso found his way to the perfervid chiaroscuro universe of his Suite 347, in which he expressed himself with a confidence equal to anything earlier in his career, but now on the drama of old age. Picasso was not afraid of the nakedness of Rembrandt’s naturalism. What he may have treasured in Rembrandt’s etchings—and in Degas’s monoprints as well—was the willingness to summon up images that could not be contained within the old pictorial structures. The result might be chaos—or a new kind of structure. Could it be that only those who have entirely succumbed to their own feelings can know the saving power of form?
Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic.