Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole

Nude, Green Leaves and Bust Estate of Pablo Picasso/
Artists Rights Society, via Christie's, New York

You probably know the famous story about Pablo Picasso and the napkin. A guy recognises the artist in a Paris cafe and challenges him to execute a sketch on a napkin. Picasso obliges with a signed doodle and asks a freakishly steep number of francs for it. The guy says, 'how can you ask so much? This only took you a minute'. 'Au contraire,' replies Picasso, 'it took me forty years.' I hope the guy still has that napkin.

The painting above has just fetched US$106 million, the highest price achieved for an artwork at auction. It took Picasso a day to paint it - or forty years, depending on how you look at it. The winning bidder probably didn't buy the painting because of what it's worth now but for what it will be worth in the future. That's how it seems to work in the art trading world these days. There aren't that many Picasso paintings coming up for sale I imagine. I once went to an exhibition of Picasso and Matisse drawings and prints. If I'd been working at the time, I would have bought a small Matisse squiggle which I loved. It was about five thousand quid.

Nude, Green Leaves and Bust is from the estate of Frances Lasker Brody, late of Los Angeles. Vanity Fair has a charming essay on her here, including wonderful photos of the Picasso in situ with other fabulous items from her collection. She also had a Matisse (La Gerbe, 1953), which lived outdoors. Now that is what I call classy. VF offers a very credible lament that the age of sophisticates of the calibre of the late Mrs Brody, who knew how to decorate their houses with fine art, has ended. It offers this distillation of her art manifesto,

Hang your Picasso in a taut black frame on the white brick wall near the black baby grand with a very grand arrangement of dried pussy willows, a Braque objet with custom stand by Haines, and the Giacometti, also on a Haines-designed pedesta (looking on in a hallway, no less). Completing the modern tableaux is the Edgar Degas's sculpture, La masseuse, which observes from the wings near a very Waspy (but, in reality, Tang Dynasty) horse sculpture, jauntily kicking its hoof.

That's right. After all, they're just things. For years, my biggest painting (Four Fat Ladies - a monstrous 2300mm x 1700mm work by deceased British artist Dave Porritt) tussled with my baby grand piano and IKEA settee for supremacy of the London House of Pants sitting room. The painting won - eventually.

We're now quite used to the idea that important works of art should be on public display and freely or cheaply accessible to all. But the scale and volume of the great art galleries can leave you feeling confused and drained. After you've seen rooms and rooms of paintings all lined up waiting to be inspected like disaffected youth at assembly, you often get the feeling that they'll start squabbling the minute your back is turned. It can be dispiriting. And it's the obverse of the individual artists' wishes for you as a viewer. Ideally it's just you and the picture.

Tate Modern in London is forever fiddling with the arrangement of its permanent collection of treasures and the results are not always pleasing. Only the Rothko Room is truly satisfying. It feels experientially complete because it was planned that way and, more importantly, it understands and accommodates the limits of the human capacity to absorb. I used to go to The Tate very often and I found that if I concentrated on just one work to the exclusion of all others, it was a much more rewarding experience.

Retrospectives are a completely different matter, of course. You expect works that spring from the same mind to be united. And it almost always happens that way. If a show is done lovingly well, it's even possible to project yourself out of the gallery and into a private connection place. Exhibitions mounted by living artists of their current work are invariably better than posthumous retrospectives. There's always a key painting or two that even the most prestigious gallery can't get hold of.

I think the same success can be achieved when works by different artists are collected and arranged in a private home, provided the domestic curator has the eye and the confidence to be that unifying thread. I find the odd aspidistra sets one's modern masterpiece off a treat. I like the way my own modest collection collides with sofas, beds, fridges, tables, chairs and the general debris of life.

Last year when I was at art school, one of our projects was to create a sculpture out of limestone. The whole thing was abhorrent - from the patronising, self-regarding, funky shoe wearing ditz of a teacher through to the finger-endangering, dust-inhaling outdoors in the middle of winter grossness of the task. The project spanned five all-day sessions. I spent all of it, bar the last fifteen minutes, indoors doodling and thinking.

Finally the solution came. I collected up the neatest pieces of my fellow students' cast-offs and, with the odd recalcitrant rasp, fashioned an homage piece to Rachel Whiteread. I got a Distinction. I deserved it for the mental anguish alone. My fellow students who had spent fifty hours working on their sculptures didn't bear me any ill will, as far as I'm aware. To be true to Whiteread, I dismantled the piece after assessment.

I didn't really belong in art school. Never was that clearer to me than when I treated one of the tutors and a couple of my fellow travellers to a chorus of Jonathan Richman's glorious Pablo Picasso. None of them had ever heard it. It's not as if it's some great international secret. John Cale recorded it on the gorgeous Helen of Troy and Bowie recorded a version. Iggy Pop might have too. I know he sings it. But can you call yourself an artist and not have inculcated this refrain into your very DNA?

Well some people try to pick up girls
And get called assholes
This never happened to Pablo Picasso
He could walk down your street
And girls could not resist his stare and
So Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole

Nah, didn't think so. But then, if you didn't agree with me, you wouldn't be reading this...