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Picasso-induced discussions

August 5, 2009

I was on holiday in the South of Spain, hence the total lack of blogging for which I apologise.
First of all I must say that I really enjoyed exploring Andalucía, and will surely be posting soon about my discovery of Hispano-Arabic art, culture and architecture. But another place I visited, which provoked the discussion that I want to propose to you today, was the new Museo Picasso in Malaga.

The Museo Picasso de Malaga. Photo from the Saatchi Gallery website.

The Museo Picasso de Malaga. Photo from the Saatchi Gallery website.

Established in 2003, this is the third Picasso Museum in the world after Paris and Barcelona – I didn’t know that, but it made me happy to complete the series. It has quite a wide collection, mainly donated by Picasso’s daughter-in-law and grandchild. The works aren’t necessarily his most famous ones, but I enjoyed them nonetheless because they allowed me to see different sides of his work. I particularly liked some early paintings done on wardrobe doors or window shutters rather than on canvas, and a still life with sea urchins in it. There was also a temporary exhibition about his relationship with different printing techniques, very well curated and most enjoyable.

Our tour guide walked us through the permanent collection in the usual fashion, but one stop we made was I think slightly unusual for most of the people in our group. We looked at two dissociative paintings, both representing a face recognisable from traits like eyes, nostrils and teeth. One had thick, decisive lines delineating geometric, angular shapes; the other had more delicate and rounded shapes but almost looked like two heads. Our guide asked us to tell him what we saw in the picture if you take the facial elements off, to show us how innovative and varied Picasso’s dissociative technique was.

Later, at the dinner table, my father was commenting on how he prefers to hear what art critics said about Picasso’s work, or what he himself said, rather than what the audience sees in his paintings. I agree that in this case it wasn’t that exciting to ask us what we saw in it if the conclusion was “It could be anything, and that’s Picasso’s dissociative technique” no matter what we said, but I had to disagree with my Dad almost on principle. I told him about We Are All Experts and how interesting it is once you actually allow a group of people to start discussing a piece of art on the basis of the impression it makes on them, because many new meanings arise from the discussion and the artwork becomes enriched by all these new layers of associations and significance.
He wasn’t convinced though, as he still thought the meaning that the artist envisaged is more legitimate than anything a spectator might say. He implied something like: while this “democratic” processes are nice, they produce opinions that are simply not authoritative and legitimate enough, that the artist is somehow “above” the spectator. My reply was that the art itself is above the artist and that he was missing the whole of postmodernism from his world view so he was a good half a century behind (to which he replied, “Good!”). I suspect we were served more food at this stage because I cannot remember the conversation developing further.

Just two days later I was doing another “We Are All Experts round” with a group of Young Graduates for Museums and Galleries, and a very similar discussion came about. We were talking about a modular piece that showed three pieces of strings and three pieces of wood carved following the string’s curve.

Three Standard Stoppages by Marcel Duchamp - Photo (c): Tate Modern

Three Standard Stoppages by Marcel Duchamp - Photo (c): Tate Modern

It is actually a work by Marcel Duchamp – which I only discovered while looking for a photograph of the artwork – and it didn’t have that wooden box at the back. A girl was saying that the different curves on the wooden planks made her think of the way we look at art, noticing only the physical appearance at first, and then focussing more and more about the meaning. She said it could also be representative of how the artists come to make a work of art, circling a concept at first and then getting closer and closer to it with each brush stroke / scalpel’s movement / performative gesture / iambic pentameter (… continue for each art form). She mentioned how she would like to know all the phases behind the composition of an artwork, all the decisions, to understand the artwork better – a lot like what my father was saying. And for her, this work by Duchamp was legitimising her desire to know the background by showing what seemed to be different states of the same object.
Always in response to the same artwork, someone else said that, according to the label, Duchamp had dropped a string to the floor and then recorded its curves, but that she and a friend had just tried to do a similar trial with a bracelet and it didn’t work. Duchamp lied!, they said. Or the curator that wrote that label did, was my reply.

I like that idea, that while we chase artists and critics for meaning, they may well be lying or inventing in their interviews and their responses. We’re so concentrated on “getting the answer” that when we get it we feel this sort of burp of satisfaction without questioning it, without thinking whether this proposed meaning works for us and for what the artwork is telling us. I wonder what my father would have said had he come along to this particular We Are All Experts – what his reaction to the possibility of Duchamp lying would have been.
I’m not saying stop reading the labels or stop believing the art historians, but I think that if we listened to other voices too we would gain so much more.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Lori Gordon permalink
    August 24, 2009 02:05

    Hi Eleonora,

    I just stumbled onto your blog (we blog about similar things, I think), and I think it’s great!

    Have you been to the Picasso museum in Barcelona? If so, I’m interested in your comparison between the one in Malaga and Barcelona. I was at the museum in Barcelona a few years ago and I found it well laid out and quite robust.

    I also agree with your thoughts that “many new meanings arise from the discussion and the artwork becomes enriched by all these new layers of associations and significance”. I am a huge believer that one of the most important aspects of art is not what the artist is trying to say, but what themes/ideas/views are brought out in the viewer. Yes, art is always going to convey the artist’s political/emotional/social views, and that’s probably the first thing you as a viewer try to figure out. But the next step is to really look at the art yourself and think about what it makes you feel, where it takes you. Because then you can learn more about yourself even.

    Great blog! Thanks for the inspiration. :)

  2. August 26, 2009 20:19

    Hey Lori!

    Nice to see your comment!

    I have indeed been to the Picasso museum in Barcelona but I must say I haven’t liked it just as much as the Malaga one. Some of the rooms I found very interesting or impressive, and I discovered some new aspects or trends in Picasso’s work that I didn’t know, but overall I seem to remember I was disappointed. Some rooms just didn’t work for me. Also I suspect I visited it on a crowded day which might influence my perception of it! :)

    I like what you said about learning more about yourself through art, because I think it is true. Much like reading books, it is a tool through which you can both understand your inner self better, but also expand and build upon it by reflecting on things that maybe you yourself wouldn’t have thought about. Which is why I really love the “We Are All Experts” format that we came up with at Tate Modern with Raw Canvas (more about it if you click on the tag somewhere on the right here): when you’re looking at an artwork and sharing your thoughts as a group, the web of associations and impressions and ideas grows exponentially.

    I would love to read your blog, but I’m afraid there isn’t a link to it in your comment and I’m not sure I found you just by googling your name. If you see this, give me an URL! (That’s a lame joke by the way: the Italian for ‘shout’ is ‘urlo’).

    Happy art-related browsing,

  3. Lori Gordon permalink
    August 26, 2009 23:33

    Hi again, Eleonora,

    Ha on the URL-urlo! Love that. I’m going to steal that from you ;)

    The We Are All Experts hits home, because I’m definitely no expert on art, but I love to view it and write about it.

    I think it’s great that such a huge community of museums (quite illustrious ones at that!) have banded together to support the Young Graduates program. I wonder if there’s something similar here in the US. I’ll look around and blog about it if so.

    And I agree, the Picasso museum in Barcelona is so very crowded. I remember a guard following me around because she thought my 2 y.o. daughter was snacking on something. Did you visit the Miro museum way up on Olympic hill in Barcelona? I loved the giant foam Mozart , Beethoven, and Bach (obviously not Miro, but quite interesting nonetheless and quite hard to miss in the museum).

    Here’s my blog! Come visit :)


  4. September 1, 2009 17:49

    My response to Lori here:


  1. Picasso-induced discussions « GuestBlog Me!
  2. The art of the Alicatado « Eleonora and the world

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