Thursday, March 10, 2011

Why Picasso Needs the Old Masters

Over the past few weeks, my students and I have been discussing some of the ironies regarding the avant-garde tradition. One of the biggest ironies is that although avant-garde artists are radical and break away from tradition, the avant-garde is also reliant upon tradition. Without the conservative Academy, the avant-garde would have nothing to react against. Hence, avant-garde art will never be able to break completely free from Western artistic tradition, because it would become meaningless without that context.

Today I've been thinking about this irony in relation to Picasso. During the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, a stray shell broke the defenses of the Prado Museum. Picasso was very concerned about the masterpieces in the museum, particularly the work of artists like Goya. But the artist had added motivation to be concerned: this same year Picasso accepted the honorific title of Director of the Museum, which was bestowed on him by the Republican government. Picasso's acceptance of this title is an indication of his sympathies with the Republican government (in case you think his attack on General Francisco Franco via his etching The Dream and the Lie of Franco Part 1 (1937) isn't enough evidence of his political leanings! Ha!).

As director of the Prado, Picasso managed the removal of several masterpieces from Madrid to Valencia. Two years later, Picasso contributed part of his personal funds to have these paintings removed once again to safekeeping in Geneva. For the most part, the paintings were kept safe, although Goya's Second of May 1808 (1814, shown right) and Third of May 1808 (1814) were both severely damaged by a falling balcony. The Prado reports that some damage was intentionally kept on the left corner of Second of May as a reminder of the Civil War.

Of course, on one hand, it isn't surprising that Picasso was concerned about the masterpieces in the Prado collection. After all, as an artist, Picasso undoubtedly appreciated the work of other artists. But could there be another reason why Picasso was invested in preserving this art? Think about it: what would Picasso be if artistic masterpieces did not exist? The radicalism in his own art wouldn't make sense. His commentaries on artistic tradition (and his rejection of those traditions) would have no meaning. Picasso needs masterpieces and tradition in order to stylistically reject them. In this light, one could say that Picasso was helping his own career when he helped to save the work of earlier masters. The continued existence of masterpieces would help ensure that Picasso's art held meaning and relevance. I wonder if Picasso realized this ironic fact.