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THE PICTURE: Picasso ♥ New York City

The painter and Gotham.

“Picasso in the Metropolitan Museum of Art” is wretchedly installed. I cannot imagine what Gary Tinterow, the curator at the museum who organized the show, thought he was doing. Tinterow has crammed so many paintings, drawings, and prints so close together that it is virtually impossible to see anything on its own terms or to make distinctions between major and minor works. In this absurdly overcrowded hanging, key paintings—Gertrude Stein (1905-06), Woman in White (1923), Dora Maar in an Arm Chair (1939)—are treated like straphangers in a rush-hour subway. And smaller glories, which include some extraordinarily important works on paper, such as the 1915 pencil portrait of Ambroise Vollard, get lost in the shuffle. Is there some theory behind this overstuffed installation? Could Tinterow—who is the chairman of nineteenth-century, modern, and contemporary art at the Metropolitan—be amused by the idea of treating Picasso’s admittedly manic production as so many square feet of high-priced merchandise to be hung in a twenty-first-century parody of a nineteenth-century salon? Does Tinterow believe that by presenting Picasso’s achievement as if it were a posh jumble sale he is saluting the ironic element in Picasso’s own imagination? (It was Picasso, after all, who said that “museums are just a lot of lies”—but apparently had no reservations about showing his work in museums.) And in any event, whatever Tinterow may have imagined he was doing, couldn’t somebody at the Metropolitan have stopped him? Why didn’t Thomas Campbell, the museum’s new director, prevent this from happening?

The pity of “Picasso in the Metropolitan Museum of Art” is that it had the potential to add fresh depth and shadings to our understanding not only of Picasso’s art but also of his relationship with New York City, where creative spirits were following his every move right up until his death in 1973. Although Picasso never visited New York, his work has been such an essential presence in the city for so long that it is not unreasonable to think of the Spaniard who spent most of his life in France as an honorary New Yorker. Guernica, his epochal response to the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, hung at the Museum of Modern Art for decades, where its monochromatic palette helped shape the black, white, and gray paintings that de Kooning, Pollock, and Kline were doing in the years around 1950. Those canvases—with their sharp contrasts, their dialectical dramas, their thrilling ambiguities—strike us as an essential expression of the spirit of New York. While we quite naturally think of the Museum of Modern Art as the place where New York’s deep, abiding love affair with Picasso is most thoroughly articulated, the Metropolitan does in fact have a rather extraordinary Picasso collection of its own.

Taken together, the Picasso holdings at the Metropolitan tend to emphasize the lyrical conservatism that sometimes complicated his anarchic energies, an obsession with tradition that anchored and even at times trumped his fascination with revolution. Gertrude Stein bequeathed to the Metropolitan Picasso’s tough, searching, implacable portrait of her, a work in which the Spanish painter confronts the American writer, and the Old World and the New World seem, for the moment, to achieve some special, secret understanding. Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer and proselytizer for all things modern, exhibited Cubist works by Picasso at the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession in 1911, and after his death his widow, Georgia O’Keeffe, gave the Metropolitan many of the Picasso drawings that Stieglitz had first shown in New York. Scofield Thayer, who published “The Waste Land” in his great magazine, The Dial, built a spectacular collection focusing on Picasso’s Neoclassicism, which he left to the museum. And there have been other formidable gifts, especially by the dealer Klaus Perls and the collectors Jacques and Natasha Gelman.

Twentieth-century New York artists, who could not come to terms with the Old World without a considerable struggle, felt a special affinity with Picasso’s restlessness—which had pushed him from the dusty enigmas of the Rose Period to the shattered figurations of Cubism, to the steely nostalgia of Neoclassicism, and to the gorgeous absurdities of Surrealism. At the Museum of Modern Art, Picasso is an artist who is always moving forward, brutally geometricizing the nineteenth-century nude in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and then elegantly anatomizing the results in Ma Jolie. At the Metropolitan one is perhaps more aware of the essentially dialectical nature of Picasso’s activity, of his tendency to remake form as well as break form, to reach for effects that are sometimes simultaneously sweet and sour, emotive and architectonic. Seated Harlequin (1901) is masklike, contemplative, a work in which Picasso’s fascination with full-out feelings is saved from sentimentality through the boldness of the design. Although the Metropolitan’s Picasso collection cannot be said to be anywhere near as important as MoMA’s—which has its share of classicizing masterworks, including Boy Leading a Horse (1906)—at the Metropolitan we do feel very strongly his pensive romanticism, his tough-minded traditionalism, and his determination to reimagine the reality of portraiture in an anti-realistic age.

Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein stands at the center of the Metropolitan’s collection, and in its own way it is as talismanic a canvas for New York as Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon or Ma Jolie. When Gertrude Stein left the portrait to the Metropolitan in 1947, it was the first of his works to enter the museum, and it feels natural that she wanted to give it to the Metropolitan, the greatest of all American museums. (Her cryptic explanation for why she did not give it to MoMA was that “You can be a museum, or you can be modern, but you can’t be both.”) The famous story of the portrait’s genesis is told once again in the catalogue of “Picasso in the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” a book with contributions by Tinterow and some half-dozen other scholars that is as lucid as the installation of the exhibition is incoherent; long after the show has closed, this volume will stand as a remarkable guide to a glorious collection. Picasso worked on the portrait for months, beginning in the winter of 1905, painting out the head in the spring after innumerable sessions with Stein had left him feeling he could no longer see her, and then painting the head back the following autumn, without looking at her again. At the time, Stein was writing Three Lives, the trio of novellas in which she brought a new austerity to English prose. In the various accounts she gave over the years about the gestation of the portrait, she liked to claim that she and Picasso had been working along parallel tracks, one in paint and one in prose, sharpening and heightening their effects, transforming reality in order to get at the essence of reality. Perhaps she felt closer to Picasso than he felt to her. But surely something about this blunt, bold American spirit appealed to the young Spaniard. The portrait of Gertrude Stein marks the moment in Picasso’s life when he looked deep into the eyes of an American artist—and perhaps found himself asking what it meant to be an American. For Americans, who have spent so much time wondering what it meant to be Picasso, the portrait suggests some mutual affinity—or at least the promise of such an affinity. And for New Yorkers, living in the city that never sleeps, this Spaniard, who indeed often worked deep into the night, will always be the quintessential modernist.

Jed Perl is The New Republic's art critic.

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