“Picasso Érotique”

Musée National du Jeu de Paume

YOU'D THINK EVERY ANGLE ON PICASSO HAD BEEN WORKED TO DEATH BY NOW—that each period, style, genre, and subject had already chalked up its own blockbuster exhibition. So on seeing this show's title, one could only wonder: Why hasn't it been done before?

Actually, it has. The Museu Picasso in Barcelona (where the present exhibition will end its tour after traveling to the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Montreal) mounted their own “Erotic Picasso” show in 1979. Still, the subject seems surprisingly under-explored, given that Picasso's stylistic chronology has been made to seem so closely linked to the succession of his mistresses. And it's practically a truism to say, as one of the contributors to this show's catalogue does, that “His painting, whatever the subject, was always sexual in origin, a moment of erotic intensity derived from the simple act of spurting color onto canvas.” That's crudely put, but still one feels that to understand Picasso's art one needs to understand something of his feelings about sex. Eroticism was at the center of his thought, as it was for Duchamp, but Picasso's meditations on sex might best be seen as part of an unspoken argument with his more cerebral contemporary, who notoriously proposed that the artistic act might be reduced to one of choice and, further, that the work is made by the viewer. For Duchamp, the manual, tactile dimension of making things is expendable, and a purely visual (but not optical!) and contemplative stance is sufficient for art—and for eroticism as well, since the consummation of relations between the bride and her bachelors can only be purely hypothetical. For Picasso, however, any split between the one who does—who touches—and the one who sees, even when they are aspects of the same person, is the occasion of both anguish and irony. Comparison of the two artists reveals the complacency or facility that limits Duchamp's aesthetic. In Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907, as Annie Lebrun writes, “it is these women who . . . challenge the viewer to withstand the gaze directed at them”—a challenge Duchamp could not have conceived of posing.

Unfortunately, Les Demoiselles is the big absence at the center of this show. though some remarkable studies for the great painting are included. In the most elaborate of these, we see the two johns Picasso had at one point considered showing amid the female inhabitants of his “philosophical brothel.” Their presence would have made the painting a very different and somehow less serious work than the one we know. They are holdovers from an earlier phase of his artistic (and sexual) maturity, in which the young artist enjoyed depicting his circle's adventures in the sexual demimonde. And yet those youthful sketches of prostitutes and their clients, or simply of stereotypical fantasies, already emphasize that split between the senses of sight and touch. It's there, for instance, in the extraordinarily true gesture captured in the lesbian Scène érotique, 1902, in which one of the women covers her eyes with her hands in order to experience the full force of what her partner is doing for her, just as it will be in the late works, notably the twenty-five prints that make up the series “Raphael et la Fornarina,” 1968, where it is embodied in the theme of the voyeur. In Sculpteur et son modile avec la tête sculptée du modèle (Sculptor and his model with the sculpted head of the model), a 1933 etching, the sculptor touches the woman but gazes instead at his own work.

For a long time after the fierce confrontation with Les Demoiselles, though, there would be strangely little, at least in that strand of Picasso's work that came from Cubism, of what we think of as eroticism. Even in the Petit Nu assis (Small seated nude) from the summer of 1907–that is, around the time of Les Demoiselles, to whose style it is closely related—the nude who lifts her leg in order (it seems) to cut her toenail, thereby completely exposing her crotch, is hardly seen with any of the tenderness or even the aggression of sex. Instead there is a tremendous objectivity, as though she were being viewed through an eye born on another planet. Nor does the neoclassical style Picasso sometimes used in the teens and '20s, for instance in the dreamy Homme nu regardant une femme endormie (Nude man observing a sleeping woman), 1922, seem calculated either to embody or to arouse any lascivious thought.

The wild metamorphoses of the body in the late '20s and early '30s in works such as Figures au bord de la mer (Figures by the sea), 1931, begin, once again, to reflect something of the lover's rage to mold the beloved's body under the pressure of his own hands, just as their projecting teeth suggest the yearning to devour the other, yet the bodies seem frozen, statuesque, rather than labile, and their surfaces appear too stony to be consumed. It's as if the sexual agon had reached a standoff. And when a more recognizably erotic lyricism returns to Picasso's art around 1932, as in the Nu couché (Reclining nude) of that year, the results can be saccharine, as if the female body no longer offered any interesting resistance at all. Only in the furiously tender works of the early '70s—when (one imagines) painting had become for the nonagenarian artist something more like a substitute for sex than a mere metaphor for it—do we witness anything like a real union of lovers, and of the senses. I am thinking in particular of two paintings here both titled L'Étreinte (The embrace), dated 1970 and 1971. “Love is an act of no importance since one can perform it endlessly,” wrote Picasso's hero, Alfred Jarry. These late works suggest, instead, that love is an act of infinite importance insofar as it cannot be performed at all.

Barry Schwabsky is a frequent contributor to Artforum.