30 January, 2009

The magic of Malaga

Kathmandu Post, January 23, 2009
Sushma Joshi
Pablo Picasso's name is synonymous with modern art. But people in Malaga, his birthplace, are not impressed. ¨Ah, Picasso, ¨ says a journalist dismissively when I tell him I am writing an article on the maestro. ¨I don't have much to say about him.¨ Instantly intrigued, I asked: So what about Picasso? Do tell. I sense this man has a lot to say about him. And indeed, such is the case.
We are sitting out in a crowded outdoor café in a cool winter night. My companions -- three journalists, two of who cover art -- are instantly fighting as soon as I put the bone out there: can Picasso's work be considered High Art? Or is it Pop? The clatter of Spanish syllables tells me that my two animated companions are at each other's throats and that this is serious, serious stuff. Thrilled to find that the tradition of intellectual discourse is alive and well in Spain, I soon get a translation from my impassioned critic.

¨Picasso is shit-man,¨ he says. ¨He is a communist but he sells all his work to rich patrons in big museums. He says: Nobody in Spain loves me. But what did he do? He lived in Paris during the Nazi Occupation and sold art to them. Did he protest? Did he leave? No, he stayed and sold his art to them.¨ This statement appears unsubstantiated, but the journalist charges that a 45 year old Nazi art dealer used to buy Picasso paintings for the Third Reich.

But no, his companion intervenes. You have to separate the art from the artist, and see his work separate from the context of the artist's life. The same man who stayed on in Occupied Paris also painted the Guernica.

Picasso's Closet, a play by Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman, deals with this same question. How did Picasso manage to survive Occupied Paris when many of his friends and contemporaries were killed by the Nazis? Should he have sacrificed his art to save the life of his Jewish friend Max Jacob, who was killed by the Nazis?

As the two move on to argue about Israel and Palestine, I realize that what charms me about Malaga is not its most well-known child who was born here. Picasso, after all, only lived here for eight years of his life before moving on to Barcelona and then to Paris. Malaga as a city, ruled by the right wing People's Party and heavily under renovation, doesn't have a great deal going for it. What charms me is that Andalusia, the mixed heart of Spain in which Malaga lies, still beats with the best spirit of Western civilization -- intellectual discourse and inquiry, a great respect for history and culture, and a syncretic sympathy for religious difference.

As I walk down the main square of Malaga filled with the fat sculptures of Balthazar Lobo, I see, all at once, three curious things. Two men in black who sport computer screens in the place of their heads walk up to unknowing tourists and mirror their emotions through their interactive screens. I see my own emotions, first hilarity then curiosity then fear, mirrored as the man hidden behind the computer screen mimics me. Soon, bored, the two artists wander off, carrying their black suitcases. Now a rock band moves down the street -- dressed in rose silk tuxedos they march like a solemn fiesta band, playing hard rock in the late afternoon. This curiosity is replaced by a freak with a pinhead (a plastic adornment attached to the top of an artist's skull) chasing people with a wheelchair which he wheels -- the wheelchair contains a character who acts paraplegic.

When I describe all this to my friend, she assures me she has never seen a pinhead chasing down people in wheelchairs in Malaga. Had I, with my usual genius of finding weird art, stumbled upon a creative corner of town, or was something else occurring? The mystery is solved when a band of artistes hand me a newspaper -- I have managed to enter the city just as the annual theatre festival is taking place. These occurrences -- pinheads, computer-headed people, rose tuxedos, are just a manifestation of this event. It is impossible not to see the influence of the man who came from Malaga even now in the streets as people try to outdo one another with creativity, even though he died at 92 in another country and did not return to his homeland.

And just as Malaga can't escape Picasso, he couldn't escape it either. In the museum started six years ago in his birth town, we see his tiny bronze sculpture of a bull, an image so close to the heart of Andalusia. We learn that he painted 58 images of the girl in the funny skirt which Diego Velasquez made famous during the Spanish Golden Age in a painting titled Las Meninas. And as I walk past the main cathedral at dusk, I see a sudden flutter of two white doves flying past on the cobalt-blue sky -- the doves that he painted and which he named his daughter Paloma after.

Picasso painted his first painting at age thirteen. In the Museum in Malaga, I see the portrait of a girl holding a sailor doll, which he painted at fourteen. From that time, he painted progressively and obsessively. Each year brought new media, new styles, and new techniques. By the time he reached his thirties, a viewer can be forgiven for thinking: ¨Picasso's getting sloppy.¨ Like me, other critics also dismiss his later works. But then he painted solidly ahead for the next six decades, working at a prodigious rate, until the viewer is bludgeoned, after seeing his last painting done at age 91, to concede -- yes, this man was a genius. If genius is 99 percent perspiration and one percent inspiration, then Picasso fits the bill. But the one percent of inspiration was always perfect, always impeccable, and without a hint of mistake.

Picasso was not a break from the past, its clear. He came from a recognizable tradition of Western art which one can see in each church, museum, plaza, and monument inside Spain and other parts of Europe. What is different about him is the sheer manic energy and his experimentation of media, form, and style which led to a huge popularity.

Several of Picasso's paintings have fetched the most prices in the world. According to Wikipedia, Garçon à la pipe sold for USD $104 million at Sotheby's on May 4 2004, establishing a new record. He had relationships with seven women, and children with three -- and all of them inspired him. How much of this price was inspired by the art, and how much by Picasso the legend? It would be hard to take the man and his art apart.

In the halls below Picasso's exhibit, the works of Max Ernst, another artist from the same period, is also exhibited. Ernst's drawings, drawn from a fanciful imagination and with the meticulous attention of a German draftsman, brings to life marionettes, people with birds´ heads, drawings that evoke scientific diagrams and other curiosities. Undoubtedly, Ernst was the better artist, if one were to think about control over technique. But despite the lavish detail of the works, I, as viewer, just want to rush upstairs and take one more look at Picasso before the museum closes. Perhaps that is the essential ingredient of a genius -- not so much the prodigious output or even the fanciful imagination, but a powerful, intangible draw to the heart.
Posted on: 2009-01-23 20:27:20 (Server Time)

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