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Raging Bull

As the modern art market snaps, crackles, and pops with new auction house highs, no one pops louder and bigger than Picasso. Connoisseur, critic, and art historian Robert Rosenblum attempts to answer the question, why Picasso, why now?

I have been looking at, writing about, and lecturing on Picasso since the fifties, and even today, three decades after his death, he refuses to lie still.

In one unexpected way after another, Picasso and his work have been constantly resurrected, reconsidered, and revalued. This past year he was given an eye-opening retrospective at the Sakip Sabanci Museum in Istanbul (said to be the city’s first for any Western artist) that included many never-before-seen pieces from the Picasso family. In Madrid he was honored in another way, with a major exhibition at the Prado, where he was shown side by side with the works of El Greco, Velázquez, and Zurbarán that had inspired him, as if he were being welcomed at last to the pantheon of Spain’s Old Masters. And this fall in New York, the Whitney Museum has cast him in a completely different role: as an infinitely fruitful source of ideas that triggered the genius of America’s modern artists, from David Smith to Jackson Pollock.

Then there’s the art market, both a cause and an effect of Picasso’s singular fame. No artist has made more headlines this year, with a parade of dizzying auction prices—$18.6 million, $34.7 million, $95.2 million. And it shows no signs of slowing. When it comes to Picasso, there are no finales, only beginnings, as if he were an archaeological site under constant excavation, with each new discovery altering everything that came before.

For starters, we now think of Picasso as a real person rather than a faceless creator of revolutionary languages for 20th-century art. And even more to the point, we now recognize that his private life, especially his nonstop sequence of lovers and wives, was constantly reflected in his art. Thanks to such magisterial biographies as John Richardson’s ongoing A Life of Picasso (the third volume is due out in 2007) and numerous exhibitions focusing on the women in his life, we might just give up the old-fashioned ways of categorizing his changing styles—Blue Period, Cubism, Classicism, Surrealism—and think about renaming them the Olga Koklova years, the Marie-Thérèse Walter years, the Jacqueline Roque years.

The 1996 Merchant-Ivory film Surviving Picasso brought the mythical genius to the big screen, presenting him as a macho Spanish version of the femme fatale. Anthony Hopkins, in the title role, let us all experience the artist’s destructive power over women. Contrary to our expectations, we saw no work by Picasso. It was his fierce psychological presence that de- manded our complete attention, an attention that can now be translated back to his art. More and more we understand how he alternated between venerating and demonizing women, treating them as goddesses or vampires but never as equals.

Picasso’s most public statements are no less susceptible to reinterpretation. His 1937 painting Guernica, 20th-century art’s most potent antiwar statement, has never stopped being newsworthy. In 1974, when the work hung in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, it hit the front pages after being vandalized by a young artist, Tony Shafrazi (now a prominent dealer), allegedly to protest Nixon’s pardoning of the perpetrators of the My Lai massacre. In 1981 Guernica left New York for Madrid, following Picasso’s wishes that it be re- turned to Spain only after Franco’s death and the reestablishment of a republic. It was initially exhibited in an annex of the Prado before moving to the Reina Sofía. Even today the work’s political charge in Spain is high, with debate about whether it should be displayed in Bilbao, in Basque Country, where it would be near the site of the tragedy that inspired Picasso’s unbearable vision of modern aerial warfare.

Guernica and its message resurfaced in freshly topical form in February 2003, when a tapestry copy of the painting that hangs at the United Nations was covered by a drapery in order to avoid undermining Colin Powell’s case for a U.S. invasion of Iraq. It was an act of censorship that, on the eve of the war, was reenacted in reverse on a cover of The New Yorker, with the curtains that had hidden Guernica now being drawn back partially to reveal the headline reality of the image.

Picasso’s stature, of course, has been sustained in venal ways as well. Year after year (and lately, it seems, month after month) the sums paid for his works have continued to escalate off the charts. In 2004 an almost saccharine Rose Period painting done in 1905, showing a boy with a pipe posed against a flowered background, went for $104.2 million at Sotheby’s, making it the most expensive object ever sold at auction. Coming in second is his 1941 portrait of a seated, witchlike Dora Maar, her hands suggesting claws and a cat perched on her chair, which brought $95.2 million at Sotheby’s in May. Picasso now claims four of the top ten auction prices of all time.

Soon it could be five. A decade ago Picasso’s portrait of his bohemian friend Angel Fernández de Soto, immersed in the melancholic blue of the artist’s 1903 palette, made news when Andrew Lloyd Webber bought it at Sotheby’s for $29 million. It was the biggest price since the 1990 art crash, and it helped kick-start the long run of market success that continues to this day. On November 8, Sir Andrew is selling the painting at Christie’s, promising to donate the profits to charity. And what will the profits be? Christie’s has put the presale estimate at $40 million to $60 million.

Picasso is an art world brand without parallel, a must-have trophy for superrich hedge fund managers and Russian oligarchs (the buyer of the Dora Maar portrait is thought to be a Russian). And with demand for important Picassos outstripping supply, relatively minor examples, along with the artist’s once-scorned late works, are fetching startlingly high prices.

In a New Yorker article about the Gustav Klimt portrait that Ronald Lauder purchased privately in June for a reported $135 million—well above Picasso’s top price—Peter Schjeldahl wondered whether checkbooks could rewrite art history. I hope not. I doubt Klimt is greater than Picasso, and I can think of many Rose Period paintings and Dora Maar portraits that I prefer to the recent auction stars—works that, with a different cast of billionaire bidders, might have sold for less. But I also know that time rewrites art history and over the decades my own views on the pecking order of Picasso’s works have never stopped shifting.

Recently, after I gave a lecture in Madrid on the artist’s portraits, a journalist asked me to name my favorite, assuming I would award first prize to the 1906 Gertrude Stein portrait I had discussed at some length. But I kept roving around, backward and forward in time and through a changing cast of sitters—old and young, men and women, dealers and lovers—and realized I’d never again be foolish enough to contemplate such a choice.

Not only do these constant revaluations involve subtle changes of good, better, best but also, at times, even total about-faces. I still remember vividly the summer of 1973 when, months after Picasso’s death in his 92nd year, a huge commemorative exhibition of his late paintings was shown in Avignon, France, at the Palais des Papes. I walked in respectfully, hoping to worship at the shrine, but my heart sank. I thought the work was terrible, an embarrassment to all who believed in him. How could he have done this to us? What was once tight, controlled, and inventive looked haphazard and sloppy, an assault of mindless, swiftly daubed quotations of earlier works, as if he’d become his own feeble disciple.

At the time, informed word of mouth had it that late Picasso was a disaster. But all that has changed. Beginning in the seventies, scales began to drop from one pair of eyes after another, my own included. Gradually, and then quickly, what looked like ragged, messily brushed surfaces turned into the explosive, passionate outbursts of an aging genius, marks of impulse suddenly appealing to younger artists rediscovering the joys of pigment slathered on canvas. Tired references to earlier ideas became the poignant memories of an artist revisiting his past with the retrospection of old age. A raw and hurried vitality that suggested the ultimate ticking of a clock gave this late work a unique emotional depth, previously read as slack indifference.

It is seen, for instance, in the 1969 Harlequin with a Baton, which sold at Christie’s this past May. Ten years ago it might have failed to sell. Instead, it fetched $10.1 million, a price once reserved for more conventional Picasso crowd-pleasers. The work is painted with the signature swiftness of his later years, the zigzag thatching of brushstrokes so impulsive that the paint looks barely dry. The figure’s posture is that of a performer onstage. He brandishes a baton—traditionally used in the commedia dell’arte as a slapstick—giving added intensity to the dark, staring eyes and flared nostrils. We may well intuit that this is a self-portrait in disguise, since throughout Picasso’s long life, he used the Harlequin, in diamond-pattern costume, as a projection of his own persona. In this painting, the figure holds a flowering green branch that speaks of regeneration, an image that looks like a last act, a Pagliacciesque mixture of tragic and comic, of public and private faces. Finding the painting so moving today, I blush when I recall that this was one of the works I could barely look at in Avignon 33 years ago, when it seemed to dishonor the artist’s memory.

The books will never be closed on Picasso. His art is a work in progress. When I look at a picture I’ve never seen before, it often reflects on another work I know well but will now view differently. The 1969 Harlequin alters the way I see a youthful Harlequin the artist painted in 1905, for example. Layer after layer of meaning keeps being added to Picasso’s art, which is so astonishingly broad and varied in its styles, subjects, and emotions that succeeding generations will reread it with fresh eyes. What remains certain is that Picasso has attained a kind of secular sainthood, his very name, like Shakespeare’s or Michelangelo’s, conjuring up otherworldly, almost supernatural greatness.

When Francesco Buranelli, director of the Vatican Museums, recently announced his intention to expand the collections of modern art, he voiced one specific wish: "I would very much like to have a Picasso."

Buying Picasso

AT AUCTION

1. Portrait of Angel Fernández de Soto, 1903. This Blue Period masterwork from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s collection is arguably the prize of New York’s fall sales. Estimate: $40–$60 million; Christie’s, Nov. 8.

2. Femmes et enfants au bord de la mer, 1932. Picasso’s exuberant Surrealist beach scenes from this period are highly coveted. Estimate: $12–$15 million; Sotheby’s, Nov. 7.

3. Le fumeur, 1953. Could this contorted painting of a smoker be a veiled self-portrait? Estimate: $9–$12 million; Sotheby’s, Nov. 7.

DEALERS TO KNOW

1. PaceWildenstein Most blue-chip galleries that deal in secondary-market works handle some Picassos, but Pace has the advantage of a long relationship with the artist’s heirs. A major show titled "Picasso, Braque, and Early Film in Cubism" is slated for spring. At 32 E. 57th St., New York; 212-421-3292; pacewildenstein.com.

2. Jan Krugier This gallery has long been a top player in the Picasso market, thanks in part to its being the agent for the collection of the artist’s granddaughter Marina Picasso. At 980 Madison Ave., New York, 212-755-7288, and 29–31 Grand Rue, Geneva, 41-22/310-5719.

3. Helly Nahmad The notorious Nahmad family of art traders has one of the deep-est inventories of Picassos. Cousins—with identical names—run separate galleries in New York and London. At 975 Madison Ave., New York, 212-879-2075, hellynahmadgallery.com, and 2 Cork St., London, 44-207/494-3200.

ON VIEW

1. Picasso and American Art explores the master’s influence on this country’s modern artists. At the Whitney Museum, New York, through Jan. 28 (it travels to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis).

2. Picasso and the Theater looks at his long and varied engagement with the stage. At the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, through Jan. 21.

3. Picasso X-Rays is a small but groundbreaking show that peers inside Picasso’s sculptures (La grue is shown above) to see how he made them. At the Musée Picasso, Paris, through Jan. 8.

IN PRINT

John Richardson, Picasso’s friend and biographer, has published two volumes of his definitive A Life of Picasso (Alfred A. Knopf), a must-read for anyone interested in the artist. The third volume is due out next fall.

THE SMART MONEY

Though hard to get your hands on, the most bankable works from Picasso’s sprawling oeuvre, says Sotheby’s specialist David Norman, are his thirties portraits, especially the colorful paintings of Marie-Thérèse Walter. "Despite their importance in art history," Norman says, "the earlier Cubist pictures simply don’t have the same wall power—the high-impact beauty." Just look at Le repos, from 1932, which fetched $34.7 million at Christie’s in May.

ON THE RISE

Pinpointing what’s hot in the Picasso market now is pretty simple: It’s all about his later works—the brash, expressionistic paintings from the sixties and seventies. "There’s been an evolution in people’s thinking ever since the 1988 ’Late Picasso’ exhibition at the Tate in London," says Geneva private dealer Marc Blondeau. "People see a relationship between these late paintings and the figurative work of today’s artists." Most important, lots of them are still available.

PICASSO VS. MATISSE

Picasso’s relationship with his friend and great rival Henri Matisse was the subject of a celebrated 2003 show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. If audiences and critics were divided over the winner of that heavyweight mano a mano, when it comes to the market, as these numbers* show, it’s no competition.

Works sold at auction, 1986–present
Matisse: 6,198 Picasso: 37,997

Record price in 1987
Matisse: Souvenir du Havre, 1912, $1.7 million
Picasso: Nu rose, 1936, $7.6 million

Record price in 1997
Matisse: La pose hindoue, 1923, $14.9 million
Picasso: Le rêve, 1932, $48.4 million

Current record price
Matisse: Nu couché vu de dos, 1927, $18.5 million
Picasso: Garçon à la pipe, 1905, $104.2 million

*Source: artnet.com

QUOTABLE

"Picasso was the greatest painter of the last century and his market is supported by the scope, style, and quantity of the work he produced. There’s something for every taste, from the classical to the more daring avant-garde."
—Andrea Caratsch, private dealer, Geneva