Pablo Picasso was the most paradoxical, perplexing and wildly inconsistent of artists. On the one hand, there are the periods and paintings – cubism, Guernica and so on – that you leave in no doubt you’re dealing with the greatest artist of the 20th century. On the other, there are endless acres of work in all media where he’s simply amusing himself “being Picasso”, re-exploring familiar tropes in a more or less self-indulgent fashion.
No aspect of Picasso’s art lends itself more to the clunky and predictable than his self-dramatising penchant for mythic Mediterranean subjects, such as those examined in this exhibition: the Minotaur – half-bull half-man monster of ancient Greek mythology – with whom Picasso identified throughout his life; and the bullfighter, whose life-and-death struggles he delighted in watching right into old age in the south of France, generally surrounded by a bevy of groupies and celebrities.
Curated by Picasso’s 93-year-old biographer, John Richardson – who with three monumental volumes behind him has become almost as much of a sacred monster as the artist himself – the show comes with a sense of slightly problematic privilege. It may be our last chance to view Picasso at the shoulder, so to speak, of a man who knew Picasso well and with real insight, but there’s the expectation too of an admirer’s view for admirers, in which the most minor works will be given a hagiographic gloss.
Such expectations are compounded by the design of the exhibition, with Gagosian’s stark, white-cube space hung with thick curtains to resemble some exclusive private viewing room, while blown-up photographs and films pander to the personality cult side of the Picasso phenomenon.
A loosely painted horned head opens the Minotaur section, with Picasso’s self-projection as this tragic, dangerous, pitiful and, of course, prodigiously amorous monster explored in a plethora of media: drawings from various periods and of wildly diverse quality, a surrealist applique wall hanging and eight different versions of his great etching Minotauromachia, which with its candle-holding little girl (based on his dead sister), gored woman and looming sword-wielding minotaur (guess who) contains enough self-lacerating imagery to keep a psychoanalyst in work for a year.
This is all good, sometimes great, stuff, but with a sense of a slightly predictable bull-themed greatest hits that continues into the matador section. From a tiny and remarkably grown-up bullfighting scene painted at the age of seven to some roughly executed matador “portraits” from 1970, we’re certainly convinced that the bull was a lifetime’s preoccupation, and the iconography becomes even more tricky as man – often actually a woman – sets out to kill the great tragic bull-hero, and the horse (representing, perplexingly, woman) is sacrificed for the pleasure of both man and bull.
Far from consisting entirely of saleable obscurities, as you might have feared, the exhibition includes very well-known works: the classic Tête de Taureau, fashioned from a bicycle seat and handle-bars, and a series of eleven prints from 1945, in which the form of a bull is gradually deconstructed. While it no doubt took considerable effort to obtain these works, they feel rather obvious choices from a curator with Richardson’s depth of knowledge.
We expect Picasso to be endlessly diverse and “surprising”, and the initial effect is of a bitty variousness in which nothing really does surprise very much. But there is, of course, more to it than that.
The thing that got me suddenly engrossed was a series of delightfully playful, even throwaway drawings from 1954, with a naked man in a minotaur mask cavorting with a bevy of naked girls and various Spanish folklore figures. They’re hardly the greatest things here – in some ways, they’re the slightest – but with their calculatedly tremulous, decorative lines they seem to arrive from nowhere: a refreshing contrast with the slightly ponderous self-mythologising of much that surrounds them.
Nearby are a completely different series of drawings again, which you’d never for a moment think were by Picasso: fiercely worked ballpoint-pen sketches of a matador being tossed or gored, so charged and immediate they must, you feel, have been done in situ.
These are just the things that struck me on the day. If you see this exhibition, you may find yourself responding to completely different things. But once you’re hooked, the whole experience takes on a new energy, and the commonplace and downright bad works as well as the good. A really awful drawing of a minotaur and nymph drinking wine sits beside a magically humorous image of the same scene.
But these excesses of quality and emotion, as well as the prodigious diversity – the darting from classicism to romanticism, from abstraction to figuration – are what Picasso is all about. If he were edited down to the great or even just the good bits, he somehow wouldn’t be Picasso. There are more than enough unexpected moments in this exhibition to convince you that however many directions he’s taken us in, Picasso will always find another door to go through.
Until Aug 25, admission free. Details: gagosian.com