Picasso and I at the Vancouver Art Gallery

1 October 2016

On the last day of September, I went to the Vancouver Art Gallery for my dutiful pilgrimage to the Picasso exhibit. It disappointed. The theme of “six muses” is unconvincing, the number of paintings small, and the number of prints and drawings many. It was busy as it is the last week of the exhibit, and the crowds clustered in great semicircles before the large and many panels explaining what the viewer is expected to think. I know Picasso has reputation, but his work leaves my heart cold.

The curator had made some odd decisions: a room dedicated to Michael Blackwood videos readily available on YouTube; a room dedicated to the Guernica mural, but not the original I have seen at the Prado but a smaller photographic copy applied to the wall; a room with books on the subject equally obtainable at a library. The Guernica mural had nothing to do with the theme of the exhibit, and its interjection made one assume that the original would be on view.

Picasso: Guernica -photo reduction at Vancouver Art Gallery (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

Picasso: Guernica – photo reduction at Vancouver Art Gallery (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

I looked at the other exhibits on offer: Stephen Waddell’s Dark Matter Atlas, and several galleries of Waddell’s commentary by selection of works, most photographs, on the work of Harry Callahan, whose original work also took up a large gallery. All in all, there was more Waddell than Callahan, and more Callahan than Picasso. The Waddell and Callahan presentations also showed no signs of curatorial imagination: mostly long, unbroken, single lines of black and white images on white walls, ultimately defeating the artist by the tedium experienced by the eye. The eye was further compromised by lighting that reflected from the glass surfaces over the photographs. Callahan’s 1984 photograph of Atlanta’s Peachtree Hotel, however, did remind of a liquid afternoon spent there a few years later.

Stephen Waddell, from Dark Matter Atlas, Vancouver Art Gallery (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

Stephen Waddell, from Dark Matter Atlas, Vancouver Art Gallery (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

Bharti Kher’s Matter, on the uppermost floor, finally placed some colour and artistic cohesion and decision before the eye.

My principal musings later on concentrated on questions of what constitutes art, how is it meaningful, and how does it communicate. This, as I sat near the municipal closure of the 800 block of downtown Robson Street that the city continues to cheer itself about. Never mind it causes traffic chaos and congestion, that nothing takes place on the ostensible meeting place of the past decades, that the young who used to sit on the gallery steps contemplating their form of actuality have simply moved to steps beneath the gallery’s café, and that the homeless have moved from the same steps to Hornby Street around the corner, shopping carts and marijuana supplies in hand. It seemed to me they knew more of urban dynamics than the planners who never use the streets.

Harry Callahan, Peachtree Hotel, Atlanta, 1984, at Vancouver Art Gallery (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

Harry Callahan, Peachtree Hotel, Atlanta, 1984, at Vancouver Art Gallery (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)


Addendum, 6 October 2016, in response to several perspectives of others:

Please note that my comments on my website relate to the exhibit, especially its curatorial assumptions, not to Picasso as an artist, though I concur with several of the comments made regarding his unjust treatment of others. I disagree with the assertion on perception: that a painting is only as good as the admirer’s perception, and that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. The municipal council of Amsterdam did not care for Rembrandt’s The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis, and there are innumerable cases of desecration of artworks because of religious perspective, from as long ago as the Reformation to the recent dismemberment of Palmyra. Bach was considered dull and old hat till Mendelssohn revived his work almost a century later. That Picasso’s work often leaves my heart cold is not a statement of artistic condemnation, but of reaction. I have a similar response to Wagner’s Parsifal, and I despise Wagner’s antisemitism, but the world would be less without The Ring.

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