Monday, May 7, 2012

(No.197) Picasso & Dora Maar come to Toronto

"Picasso and Dora Maar Come To Toronto"

by Alastair Rickard

There was a coincidence of timing at the beginning of May: the sale to an anonymous buyer for $120 million of one of the four paintings of "The Scream" done by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch and the opening at the Art Gallery of Ontario (the AGO) in Toronto of a major Pablo Picasso exhibition: "Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musee National Picasso, Paris". The sale at auction in New York (Sotheby's) of the only one of the four paintings still in private hands eclipsed the previous record for an artwork -- a record $106.5 million (U.S.) held by Picasso's "Nude, Green Leaves, and Bust" sold by auction by Christie's in 2010.

The public is encouraged to believe by some art critics and opinion shapers that the works of 'contempoary' or 'modern' artists of one sort or another (like Picasso who died in 1973 or Andy Warhol in 1987) attract ridiculously high prices because they are momentous art. If Warhol's tinted photographs are great art, so are NHL hockey sweaters. Picasso deserves to be thought of in a different artistic category -- and is.

In fact the dollar value of so-called contemporary art, especially the stuff being churned out these days, often reflects neither merit nor any real artistic talent.

Contemporary art works, promoted by financially self-interested private galleries, art brokers and various media toads in art's gardens, have become preferred assets as well as trophy purchases of the very rich (leading examples these days are Russian oligarchs and Arab sheiks). They are also investment buys of the merely wealthy.

The reality is that in today's marketplace only one art museum in the world has, even in theory, the money to have competed at auction to acquire Munch's painting for the price paid: the Getty Museum in California, created in the 1970s by the American oil man J. Paul Getty and endowed in 1982 with $1.2 billion. It would likely have taken three years of the Getty's entire annual acquisition budget to get into the bidding for the Munch painting in a serious way.

I don't remember how many Picasso exhibitions (large and small) Pat and I have attended since the early 1980s; I recall particularly one that stopped in the summer of 1985 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts that was very well received. The AGO actually hosted one of the early 'blockbuster' Picasso exhibitions in 1964.

The English minimalist Damien Hirst is today's leading example of celebrity-based, trendy, commercially attractive art, an artist supported by the investment and fashion-driven contemporary art market rather than by artistic talent. However the public would never have expected from Picasso -- no matter how fashionable the collection of his work became -- anything like Hirst's  skinning of a sheep's head and presenting it as a work of art ("A Thousand Years", 1990) or constructing a large disk made of thousands of flies preserved in resin ("Black Sun", 2004).

The difference between Picasso and so many of today's commercially successful contemporary 'artists' was that he actually had artistic talent which he displayed in his art. What he later became was a mass producer of works that appealed to (among others) those seeking to show themselves resolutely in opposition to 'traditional' painting.

Not for Picasso the inexplicable commercial price inflation related to, say, silk screen tinted photos churned out by Andy Warhol's assistants under his name and certainly not the numerous bizarre creations already around as well as those yet to come from Damien Hirst 'wannabes'. But why not? Are they not applauded by the pretentious denizens of the Tate Modern in London and purchased by  wealthy investors/collectors whose core question tends to be: 'what's a good art investment these days?'.

The Picasso Museum in Paris, which Pat and I have visited, has been closed for renovations (which it needed and, for me, a setting more interesting than the art it housed). Its director Anne Baldassari cleverly decided to use this time to raise some cash by touring some of its artistic holdings. Hence the special exhibiton at the AGO in Toronto which runs through August 26. It is the only Canadian stop for the exhibition.

In the interests of clarity and of fairness to my spouse: as with most art she both appreciates and enjoys a wider range of art than I do -- and that includes Picasso. Having said that I hasten to add that this Picasso exhibition is the most interesting I have attended anywhere because it covers the arc of his entire artistic life from his youth in Spain through his death in France.

Picasso was born in Malaga in 1881  and moved with his family in 1895 to Barcelona. He is often thought of as French since it was that country to which he moved, settling in Paris in 1904. For me the most interesting parts of his artistic career are when his talent as an artist was displayed in neither cubist nor surreal styles.

In the AGO's Picasso exhibition you can follow not only the changes in his style but also see evolve a style that enabled an accelerated production of an estimated 50,000 art works during his lifetime. Averaged over his adult years that amounts to almost two per day every day seven days a week. At that rate he was turning out (mostly) paintings like summer sausage in Ontario Mennonite country.

If the attendee at the AGO exhibition is anticipating a display featuring Picasso's most famous works, forget it. The AGO advertising of the exhibition says that it features art the Picasso kept for himself. Well, yes and no. The Musee National Picasso also holds works donated to it since Picasso's death including donations in lieu of taxes. But the art currently on display at the AGO is significant and representative.

One of the 'portraits' in the exhibition is of Dora Maar, the fourth of Picasso's six principal female companions during the 1904-1973 years, two of whom he married. Dora Maar, a photographer and political activist whose real name was Henriette Markovitc, was with Picasso from 1935 to 1944 and was the subject of a number of his paintings. Born in 1907 she outlived him by almost a quarter century, dying in 1997.

The exhibition portrait featured in the advertising for the exhibition and on the cover of the exhibition guide is "Dora Maar seated"(1937). It is interesting that in 2005 an anonymous Russian paid $95.6 million (U.S.) for another Picasso painting of this mistress: "Dora Maar with cat"(1941).

In terms of Picasso's style in "Dora Maar seated" the figure depicted can be recognized as a female. This is -- for me at least -- in happy contrast with, for example, a painting also in the exhibition: "Reclining nude and man playing guitar"(1970). It might more accurately have been titled 'yellow blobs above orange blobs'.  But to appreciate the real depth of Picasso's talent, especially evident in his earlier work, the exhibition attendee can also view paintings like "Portrait of Olga in an armchair" (1918) and "Seated woman" (1920).

Both Pat and I found the AGO's Picasso exhibition worth attending. Pat found more in it to enjoy that I did. An audio guide provides some information about selected works and attempts to provide insight into Picasso's changing styles.

The Picasso exhibition runs through August 26 at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. For details go to




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