Stop Comparing Every Artist with Picasso

Jackson Arn
Aug 6, 2019 10:27PM
Alice Neel
Patia Rosenberg, 1968
Xavier Hufkens

To be seen as the best in your field is to be compared, nonsensically, to everyone else. McGill is the Harvard of Canada. Miller High Life is the champagne of beers. Something called Fulltouch is apparently the Rolls-Royce of chalk. M.F. Husain is the Picasso of India. Husain isn’t alone, of course. Tarsila do Amaral is the Picasso of Brazil, Franco Gaskin is the Picasso of Harlem, and Ray Villafane is the Picasso of pumpkin carving.

Pablo Picasso
Portrait of a Bearded Man, 1895
Jaime Eguiguren - Art & Antiques

Since his death in 1973, Pablo Picasso has inspired a heap of occasionally apt but mostly misleading comparisons. There’s an entire subgenre of art exhibitions premised on these sorts of juxtapositions. As I write, no less than three such shows are open to the public. Hauser & Wirth pairs Picasso with Louise Bourgeois; at the Musée Picasso Paris, he’s contrasted with Alexander Calder; and at Sara Kay Gallery, with Alice Neel.

It’s not that these artists aren’t strong enough to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the great Picasso—they are. Picasso’s work practically cries out for comparison to a wide range of artworks made before and after him. Taken in the aggregate, however, “Picasso / [Someone Else]” exhibitions offer a cultish and rather boring view of art history. They present Picasso as the indispensable man, the mighty channel through which all of art history flows. To have painted before Picasso is to have influenced Picasso. To paint after Picasso is, ipso facto, to cower in his shadow. The best we can hope for when we’re trained to see art in these terms is to be the Picasso of something or other.

Louise Bourgeois
FEMME, 2005
Cheim & Read
Pablo Picasso
La femme enceinte I, 1950

If Picasso wasn’t indispensable, it wasn’t for lack of aspiration. Tallying his works is like counting the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. During his lifetime, he produced hundreds of sculptures and paintings, thousands of drawings, and tens of thousands of prints, to say nothing of his tapestries, rugs, and ceramics. That an astonishing portion of these works are masterful, and most of the others are very, very good, is as an uncontroversial a statement as an art critic can make. Even more astonishingly, they’re all vastly different. It would take an exceptionally keen eye to deduce that Portrait of a Bearded Man (1895) and Sitting Musketeer with Sword (1969) were painted by the same hand.

Is it any wonder, then, that Picasso pairings are inexhaustible? His body of work is so rich and varied that you can’t help but uncover some semi-fruitful analogy. The best of these analogies challenge the conventional, deadening view of Picasso as an infallible genius. The 2002–03 touring blockbuster “Matisse Picasso,” which debuted at Tate Modern and ended at theMuseum of Modern Art, found room for all sorts of productive, surprising juxtapositions of its two subjects. It explored their experiments withCubism, their fascination withPaul Cézanne, etc. The show was effective in no small part because Henri Matisse and Picasso were friends and rivals for 50 years.

But the thing that makes the Picasso comparison so seductive, and occasionally successful, is also what makes it unconvincing 99 times out of 100. There is something in Picasso for everyone, so when a curator pairs him with someone else, the results are all but guaranteed to feel arbitrary and unmotivated. The second artist could just as easily have been Degas or Dalí.

“Louise Bourgeois & Pablo Picasso: Anatomies of Desire” at Hauser & Wirth’s Zurich gallery seems like the latest in a long series of attempts to dilute the singularity of Bourgeois’s work with a pompous, strained comparison. (Before Picasso, her work was aligned with the philosopher Gaston Bachelard, who she’d barely read—a point Jean Frémon makes in his nimble little book Now, Now Louison.) Gerhard Richter has yet to appear alongside Picasso in a two-person show but the press has already dubbed him “the Picasso of the 21st century.” That’s fair enough if you’re talking about his prices, hilariously inaccurate if you’re talking about anything else.

When the Picasso comparisons extend to non-Western artists, things move from silly to sinister. What, precisely, is meant by calling R.C. Gorman “the Picasso of American Indian art” or George Lilangathe Picasso of Africa?” Why the entire continent of Africa, instead of Lilanga’s native Tanzania? The analogy—not unlike Saul Bellow’s question, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?”—fairly reeks of condescension: Since there is only one true Picasso, Africa’s version must by definition be a cheap knockoff.

It’s an impoverished, self-serving way of thinking about non-Western art and art in general. Still, there is one excellent reason why galleries keep straining to compare Picasso with other artists. Gallerists are, after all, in the business of selling things. One surefire way of ratcheting up the price of a painting is to link it, by any means necessary, with a cash cow. (Those who find this line of reasoning cynical will need to decide for themselves what a $450 million, possibly bogus Leonardo has in common with an Andy Warhol.) In the last few decades, Picasso’s works have brought their sellers hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars—conclusive evidence that the clueless Picasso comparisons will persist for a very long time.

Jackson Arn