I suppose my viewing companion and I approached it all wrong. At the Guggenheim, I like to start on thetop floor and work my way down. But the exhibit was arranged chronologically and worked its way up, -- bottom floor early paintings, top floor the later ones, with the studies for Guernica (1937) around the thirdor fourth floor. But we started with the late paintings first, with his portraits of women out-of-joint, animal-headed, grotesque, and had to make sense of where he ended up – misogynistic, misanthropic, the cubist abstraction looking painful and hateful – without the softening of watching the master’s progression over time.
To start on the ground floor and work up would have shown the calm line of the neoclassic portraits, the faces of his muses rendered with a mostly gentler hand. You could say there was even something like love between the painter and subject, between the painter and painting. But boy, did something happen, and it wasn’t just cubist experimentation or the horrors of war. To read the paintings, particularly the portraits, biographically, when the wives, mistresses, and muses became all a-jumble, the paintings of women began to change. Certainly this is not an entire overview of his oeuvre – he created close to 50,000 works of art over his 60-something-year career – but in this exhibit, the turning point of his depiction of women is dramatic. A portrait from the early 1930s of Olga Khohklova, Picasso’s first wife, is grossly misshapen and has a slit of a vagina dentata for a mouth. This is the spot where many of the portraits turn ugly.
Of course, not all the paintings in this show are quite so jarring. Much of it is evocative and brilliant. “The Maids of Honor” is typical of Picasso’s genius for deconstructing a figure and a scene and reconstructing it into something altogether new. The flow and folds of a woman’s gown become a chock-a-block of clashing geometries and fields of hue. And “The Charnel House,” a mangle of bodies and parts sprawled beneath a table, powerfully and aptly alludes to the scenes of horror that were breaking across Europe at the end of World War II.
Though the show is called “Black and White,” the palette is mostly gray, with subtle shadings that have the effect of almost obfuscating the content of the paintings and soothing the eye. Overall, it’s a magnificent exhibit, with many of the paintings coming from private collections, being shown in public for the first time. But start from the bottom and work your way up the Guggenheim climb. Perhaps by the time you reach the top you’ll be wowed enough and tired enough not to notice what I did.