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Lucy McKeon: Picasso and the “The Eternal Feminine”

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March 28, 2012

demoiselles.jpegPhotograph via Flickr by wallg

In Madrid, Lucy McKeon reviews Picasso’s “eternal feminine” exhibit, which is grouped around paintings of women, yet presupposes a male perspective.

By Lucy McKeon

Madrid, March 2012:

Entering the exhibit at the Fundación Canal, the prostitutes were still on my mind. I’d reached for my camera to take a picture of one before I’d seen the others—all I saw was long blonde hair, thickly filled blue jeans, and a small old man sitting on the fire hydrant three feet away, taking in the view. This scene seemed very European to me, very “artistic.”

I wasn’t quick enough and before I could notice the others—stilettos, short skirts, and boredom-tinted flirtation—the first woman performed a balletic move out of my frame (the others must have warned her). I took my time taking the picture, as if I didn’t even notice her, as if I needed to frame the old man just…right. As we passed, one of her friends playfully threw nutshells at my father and, he later told us, made a kissy face at him behind my mother’s and my back.

****

“The Eternal Feminine” presents a selection of Picasso’s print-making between 1927 and 1964—etchings, lithographs, sketches and drawings mostly—at the Fundación Canal in Madrid until April 8th. The exhibit’s name refers to Goethe’s idea that the fused figures of the mother and the lover (or the beloved one) create a universal principle that consolidates the spectrum of female identity.

Perhaps better known in relation to Nietzsche, the concept of the Eternal Feminine is the affirmation of Platonic ideals of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful—atemporal and expressed through activities like love and wisdom. In opposition is the Will to Power, the masculine principal of finite struggles for domination.

Organized in fourteen sections, the prints are grouped thematically. Some of their titles focus on a visual or stylistic theme, such as “Mujer sentada” (“Woman sitting”) while others ground the works in an artistic tradition revisited: Cubism, Renaissance, Baroque. Still other groupings are more explicitly abstract: “Mujeres imaginadas” or “Misterio y silencio.”

Picasso the Artist, we’re told at the museum, approached the female subject—one of the more frequent iconographic topics of his oeuvre—from the perspective of simultaneous admiration and interrogation (“al mismo tiempo admira e interroga al sujeto femenino”).

The harsher English cognate, “interrogation”—rather than the direct translation “question”—seems to revive the defensive prick that originally led me here. Picasso the Man, of course, was an iconic womanizer.

What becomes clear right away, wandering the warm, snaking pink corridors, is the amount of labor he put into different reproductions of the same images. As is often said of him, he seems obsessive.

The portraits of Françoise Gilot (who has her own section)—painter, author, and the mother of Picasso’s children—are mostly lithograph and drawing. Each shows the large-eyed woman head on, only her bust, perhaps Picasso’s homage to his classical training. But while some are smoky and warm, others use stark wisps of pencil, each with varying degrees of shading around Gilot’s face and wild mane. Her eyes twinkle or hang subtly seductive depending on the heaviness of eyelid deployed by Picasso. A few look like children’s drawings.

Jaqueline Roque (who also has her own grouping)—the second wife with whom Picasso spent the last 20 years of his life—is portrayed mostly in profile, exaggerating her even more enormous eyes, triangular nose, and mantilla veil. By this time, an interesting new technique has emerged: a penciled zig-zag and agitated cross-hatching more or less densely applied to create shading and depth, that has the effect of making Roque look simultaneously jagged—like a spiky caterpillar—soft, and fuzzy. Apparently Picasso did over 400 portraits of her before he died, and she shot herself 13 years later.

These two women return throughout the exhibit, making appearances in other groupings outside their own, but otherwise, the women represented in the exhibit are mostly unnamed, simply called Mujer or distinguished by what they do or wear. We can assume that some are mistresses, others truly imaginadas. To make a comprehensive study of female experience is a large undertaking. Lithographs of children paired with poems cover innocence and youth. But what of Goethe’s mother figure? The only women over forty are those in uniforms sitting in each room, unsmilingly guarding their posts and looking less bored than your average museum guard—more intent, more watchful.

And what of Picasso’s well-known mistresses? The famous photographer Dora Maar’s work is displayed just across the city at the Museo Reina Sofía (where Picasso’s “Guernica” also lives) but the exhibit doesn’t mention her anywhere. Nor is there reference to Marie-Thérèse Walter, 17 years old when they met, or to Genevieve Laporte, who also met Picasso at 17 when she interviewed him for a school newspaper (their affair began later). This particular dearth contributes to a portrait of the dedicated artist, loyally creating image after image of his two wives and the women of his imagination alone.

The prints in “La herencia cubista” (“the cubist heritage” or “legacy”) are from the ’40s and ’50s, many decades after the birth of cubism. It’s satisfying to see the recognizable Françoise transformed by cubism, a clever curatorial tactic. The insistent cubism of these prints seems a nostalgic memory of this once new form.

The exhibit itself, in fact, is a kind of micro-imitation of Picasso’s most famous technique—of layering perspective on perspective, offering a comprehensive view of what can never be complete.

The incessant multi-perspectivism on the same flat paper—Françoise after Françoise, mujer after mujer—is itself a different way of representing depth. We see these women as Picasso saw them at different times, with different intents, and under different influences. It’s the painstaking curation that gives the exhibit its great strength and demonstrates how cubism, both the form and the ideas behind it, was Picasso—both the artist and the man. The interest in experimenting with different ways of seeing expands to include our view of Picasso himself.

To say that he was a womanizer and to say that he was an artist sensitive to his female subject is, of course, not a contradiction. Nor does his position behind the canvas necessarily imply a static and uncomplicated power dynamic in relation to his female subjects. After seeing the many faces of Françoise, one knows her too well to dismiss her in this way. Still, the faces are seen through Picasso’s eyes.

And yet, the exhibit’s organization and the “meaning” thus made, are not his own. The Goethean title itself, however, presupposes a male perspective, a world in which the female is defined in relation to the male (as mother, lover, daughter)—an ideal conceived and held by men that offers them salvation.

“The Eternal Feminine” does not deliver an all-encompassing analysis of Picasso’s relationship with women—nor does it try to do so—but rather it offers a selection, a certain attitude toward Picasso and some of his work. It is one, literally multifarious perspective on Picasso to add to the rest—a construction that may work to counter and converse with others—and, in this case, it is a welcome one.

A few groupings explicitly address this relationship between the artist and his subject (“La mujer y el artista”), depicting various situations of observing, capturing, giving, and taking.

In one work a woman stands, literally on a pedestal, above the male artist who paints her. In another, a classical drawing, a woman dances holding an apple near a hovering cupid while surrounding men—young and old, including a small painter in one corner—look on. The exhibition’s caption tells us that Picasso portrays a kind of confession or autobiography in these works—that his admiration for women is reflected in the women he chooses as models, fuel for the artist to capture and to create. This self-reflection is not complex. But the sections that follow are less simple.

In “La mujer observada”, the observed woman is sensual, posing as one might lie out on a freshly made bed, or a grand piano. Except in one work, where a sculptor inspects a female bust, a sort of strange take on “the woman observed.” Her multilayered face looks back at her creator, an onion of perspectives, seeming to be panoramically all-seeing. “El Desayuno sobre la hierba, a partir de Manet, II” appropriates the original Impressionist image, replacing luminescent skin and picnic basket with exaggerated curves and the minimalism of a cubist-informed “primitive” representation. Men and women are distinct when carefully inspected, but blend together with a relaxed eye.

Two women observing a naked man in “La mujer que observa” are described in one piece’s title as indifferent, and they look it. In the other piece, a woman looks on quizzically and calmly at a nude male buttock, as if to say, “Hmm…” Regrettably, there aren’t more than two works in this section.

“La profundidad de la piel” (“Skin deep” or “The depth of skin”) is a musing on form. One poetry-lithograph pairing is divided into four sections, two pictures above two columns of (French) text. On the left are two nude women, one sitting cross-legged and the other standing, pulling back long hair with smiling eyes closed. On the right, a cubist face forms a Venn diagram du visage marked by cross-hatching and black ink blobs. “Pareja” (or Couple—an illustration for poetry by Aimé Césaire) is a minimalist, penciled abstraction of body parts, vegetal human forms. Female and male daffodils embrace. Flowery sex organs dominate the stem-like bodies, entirely without skin. Above, their tiny geometric faces almost smile.

***
The next day I see the prostitute again, standing in her same spot flanked by two other women. I hadn’t realized where I was, and this time I’m approaching from head on. Flustered, I look away smiling, and continue on. I feel my face flushing—does she remember me? Part of me is glad I didn’t get the picture, and part of me still wishes that I had.
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Lucy McKeon is a freelance writer and photographer, and a graduate student at NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program.

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One comment for Lucy McKeon: Picasso and the “The Eternal Feminine”

  1. Comment by Richard Moore on April 2, 2012 at 1:05 pm

    This write-up of the show in Madrid entitled “PIcasso & the Eternal Feminine” provided a serviceable walk-through description of what was on offer. What I kept looking for was some clear, succinct stab at how Picasso, the man and the painter, related to this highly abstract concept.
    I liked the definition of the Eternal Feminine as “the affirmation of Platonic ideals of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful—atemporal and expressed through activities like love and wisdom. In opposition is the Will to Power, the masculine principal of finite struggles for domination.”
    It was never made clear, at least to me, where does fitted into something as murky as The “Eternal Feminine.” So, he liked women as sex objects, as beauty objects, and (maybe even) as companions–sometimes one, sometimes the other. Where does that leave him? Where does it leave us?

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