Picasso: The Bathers

At the Museum of Fine Arts

At the age of seventy-eight the Maestro is not yet finished with concocting enigmas. For the past six decades we have learned to recognize many Picassos: Picasso the archpriest of modern art, heir to Cezanne; Picasso the innovator and incorrigible prophet; Picasso the virtuoso of an infinitely flexible technique; Picasso the wit, even the coquette.

During half a century, the hand of the master has proved itself again and again, faster than the eye of its public. Now, we are shown a Picasso of extreme spontaneity, of seemingly unbounded joie de vivre, of almost casual exuberance; a Picasso who may have at last come to believe too completely in his own image of infallibility. The question is that of how much exuberance is due Picasso because he is Picasso, and how much his latest production justifies itself on its own terms.

The most recent Picassos until The Bathers, I find frankly disappointing. They have been generally flip, too off-hand, even downright sloppy. Many of the canvases, contrary assertions aside, have been leaving the studio too fast. There are those who declare that Picasso is at last treating his mesmerized public to the joke skeptics accused him of playing as early as the 1900's. This, however, is difficult to accept. If the man has begun to fool anyone he has first gulled his own ego. These latest statements are fully as ingenuous as the most taut of his analytical cubist masterpieces, even if they are lacking in other respects.

The Bathers represents Picasso's most extreme production of the '50's. (It is no discouraging sign that Picasso at seventy-eight is as flexible as Picasso at twenty-five.) The opus is a single tableau consisting of six larger-than-life-size bronzes, cast of wood and miscellaneous materials. The figures are drastically simplified forms and they compose a play of varied rhythms in which the element of surprise is no small factor--a technique Miro uses to the hilt.

The Bathers, to make matters especially difficult and particularly intriguing, is a product of contradictions. It is technically a sculpture--there seems to be no way of getting around that--but it is a sculpture which answers more to the laws of painting than to those of the sculptor. It might almost be described as a three dimensional drawing. Seen as a series of individual figures, the work loses its meaning. But, together, as an antiphone of forms which are largely linear, the work moves, functions, comes alive with a remarkably electric vitality.

The second seeming contradiction is that this work is a startling fusion of primitivism at its most potent, and of high classicism. The two idioms have been blended before by Picasso, but previously this union has been a clear adaptation of the primitive to a European, specifically French vision. This time he unites both without compromise.

Here are contrary forces at work. The questions evoked are many. Are these forces justified separately? Do they combine sufficiently as a whole? There is no need to force a decision. For a decade at least the equation is better left unresolved.

Certainly, all the cerebral activity here is given over to ingenuity and invention. The element of control is there, but it is innate, instinctual, the reservoir of all Picasso has learned and said. Precisely in this sense, and not in any spirit of license, The Bathers must be viewed indulgently as a Picasso. This is his domain, building upon a past he himself created. If he is making mistakes they are mistakes he has been careful to earn.

A number of sculptures which happen to accompany the Picasso at the Museum of Fine Arts make an interesting comparison. There is a Lehmbruck which is rather more elegant, more refined. There is a Brancusi fish which is more restrained. But there is also a Calder stabile which pursues much the same goals as the Picasso--a forceful statement of dramatic black shapes--and next to it the Picasso looks far more complete, more resolved, more dignified.

Full Picasso or weak Picasso, is the question; but ingenuous and necessary the sculpture is without doubt. In another ten years The Bathers may turn out to be a landmark and it may seem a colossal bore. It may represent an extreme and very vital distillation of an exhaustable energy, or it may turn out to be an oversimplification attempted during an era of desperate searchings and inadequate solutions. In any case, our eyes will have to become acclimated before the dictums have a place. That, as the history of Picasso proves, is the most auspicious beginning of all.