Guernica was the last masterpiece of painting to be provoked by political catastrophe. World War II and the Holocaust evoked nothing to match it, and the monuments to the Gulag are books, not paintings. Guernica’s power flows from the contrast between its almost marmoreal formal system and the terrible vocabulary of pain that Picasso locked into it. It is shown at MOMA with all its preliminary studies, and to see Picasso developing these hieroglyphs of anguish, the horse, the weeping woman, the screaming head, the fallen soldier, the clenched hand on the sword, is to witness one of the supreme dramas of the injection of feeling into conventional subject matter that the century has to offer. Indeed, the effort was such that it carried him past the end of the picture into a series of weeping women’s heads, which show, even more clearly than Guernica, how Picasso could saturate a motif with meaning, to the point where it could hold no more truth. This free passage from feeling into meaning was the ing into meaning was the essence of his genius. Even when he was painting below form, he could always find significance in commonplace sensations, however distorted the actual form: the death in a goat’s skull or the spikiness of a sea urchin, the feather softness of a dove, the looming stupid menace of a bull, a toad’s lumpish slither.
Picasso was 55 when he finished Guernica, and up to his 60th birthday or so he remained an artist worthy of comparison (if painters and writers can be compared) with Shakespeare. There was a similar range of feeling, from bawdry to tragedy, coupled with a rhetorical intensity of metaphor and a great depth of experience. After Guernica he could still paint very well: L’Aubade, in 1942, with its stark intimations of confinement and oppression, seems to distill the mood of occupied France. Some of his portraits of Dora Maar, Marie-Thérèse’s successor as his mistress, are of ravishing and edgy beauty.
Yet the inventions of necessity slowly gave way to the needs of mere performance. Picasso’s sculpture retained its intensity almost to the end, but his painting did not, and this became clear after 1950. Without doubt, MOMA’S great exhibition ends on a dying fall. The Picassian energy is still there, masquerading as inspiration, but too often it ends as a form of visual conjuring. Was he growing bored with his own virtuosity? Impossible to know. Since anything could be converted into a Picasso, and into a Picasso, and thence into gold, he suffered the dilemma of Midas twice over. This was the inevitable result of the fame he enjoyed in the last quarter-century of his life, a fame such as no artist in history had known. It could only have been created by the pressures of the 20th century, with its mass magazines, its art market, its mania for promiscuity among famous names combining in the most sustained exercise in mythmaking ever to be visited on a painter. In the end he was trapped by his own reputation, the idol and prisoner of his court of toadies and dealers, fawned on and denied the ordinary resistances against which an artist, to survive at all, must push.