THE WORLD STILL ISN’T READY FOR PICASSO
The World Still Isn’t Ready For Picasso
Picasso’s Women of Algiers (Version O) broke all barriers for the sale price of a painting at auction when it went under the hammer in New York recently, fetching $179m (around £115 million) at Christie’s amid high demand from collectors. It becomes the third most expensive painting ever sold (number one spot goes to Gauguin’s Nafea Faa Ipoipo? which raised $300m) So far, so unsurprising – Picasso perhaps better than any painter fits our definition of the genius, groundbreaking modernist artist of the 20th century…uninhibited, untamed, original (male, of course – women artists are worth a fraction at auction) and virile. Van Gogh is another artist who raises high prices and fits the mould pretty well (the ear-cutting signifying the mental anguish that we like to think goes along with being a brilliant artist) but Picasso with his numerous wives and children and generally behaviour in that department is an even stronger candidate. Picasso’s paintings are indeed of untamed sexuality, even if they tell us about the sexuality of Picasso himself rather than the nude women he depicts, portrayed in the ‘primitivist’ style.
What was quite extraordinary however was the censorship by Fox News who blurred out two of the women’s breasts. It seemed incredible in this day and age – even the Victorians felt capable of viewing fully nude women in paintings! It’s hard to imagine Fox feeling the need to censor those classical nudes like Velazquez’s famous Rokeby Venus . But as we will see, there are nudes and then there are nudes. A safe, smooth, classical nude by Velazquez is acceptable – Picasso’s crude, almost cartoon-like women (the Women of the painting are prostitutes to boot, not tasteful courtesans) are not.
It’s not as if no painter has depicted a tempting nude woman before – Ruben’s famously buxom women are not alone is revelling in female flesh in the guise of a classical lesson. I wonder what Fox would make of Goya’s very suggestive The Nude Maja from 1800 (below) which actually dares to depict a hint of pubic hair.
But I think it’s Maja’s entirely submissive, ‘come hither’ look that differentiates it from the Picasso. Perhaps Fox would have censored this painting too, had it come up for sale, but I suspect not. It’s hard to believe that the breasts in the Picasso (which really are just circles with a big dot in the middle, and are hardly realistic) were found to be so unacceptable to viewers but perhaps this is precisely why – it has a look about it of a crude cartoon someone might draw. They are not just nude but properly ‘naked’. Perhaps it’s too easy to imagine what was going on in Picasso’s head when he was painting them. Women Of Algiers (part of a series of 15 paintings) was Picasso’s hommage to the orientalist fantasies of the 19th-century French artist Eugène Delacroix: here is his original Women Of Algiers from 1834.
Delacroix’s women however are safely clothed in exotic garb – the painting may indeed be suggestive (it is of a harem, after all) but the ‘otherness’ of the image is a distancing factor. In the Picasso version the women’s body parts look disjointed and almost separate from each other – they are reduced to their constituent anatomical parts. Not surprisingly it has come if for criticism as being not only colonialist but also misogynistic. There’s more to the painting than this however, as The Women of Algiers was started within a month of the Nationalist uprising in Algeria in 1954 which lead to the eight-year long Algerian War of Independence. As much as it is a dialogue with Delacroix, it may also be a dialogue with the perceived repressions of the Algerians. Additionally, the painting was started weeks after the death of Picasso’s friend Matisse, also famous for his voluptuous odalisques (the French form of the Turkish word for women in a harem). He joked that “When Matisse died he left his odalisques to me as a legacy”.