Tag: Art

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A stylized set of portraits of R.B. Kitaj, who is being re-appraised by English painter Ethan Pinch.

Critical Mass: The Case Against R.B. Kitaj

To revisit the work of American artist R.B. Kitaj is to revisit the scene of a ritual murder. He is, after all, a painter noteworthy for being ‘assassinated’ by his critics—a grievous mantle which, though Kitaj has been dead for over fifteen years, has thankfully found no indisputable successor. What stands today as a classic fable of yellow press journalism is the account of a London Tate retrospective so viciously panned that it is now held to be the catalyst for Kitaj’s eventual suicide along with the tragically premature death of his wife, Sandra, from a stroke.

Kitaj had been, for most of his career, a sort of enfant terrible—so it follows that he should have been accustomed to some negative criticism, or at least journalistic vulgarity. Yet the ’94 Tate retrospective, an event intended to finally confirm his critical legacy, instead gave rise to one of the most vicious pile-ons in the history of broadsheet criticism. A ‘cyclone of abuse ‘. A ‘lynch mob‘.

But what’s the real substance behind all this tabloid melodrama? Could it just be another case of critical caprice? Of obstinance and snobbery? Or was it, as Kitaj loudly alleged, a case of antisemitic blood libel: of gentiles bashing and scapegoating an expatriate Jewish artist for the crime of merely existing? […]

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A drawing by Pablo Picasso of Picasso and Manuel Pallarès looking at the Eiffel Tower.

Pablo Picasso and Apostate Cubism

The painting I want to talk about is this one: “Guitar and Mandolin”. It’s one of Pablo Picasso’s biggest still lifes and a prime example of what’s generally referred to by art historians as synthetic Cubism. It’s not as beloved or as famous as works such as “Guernica” or “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” but I would argue it’s a masterpiece and one that summarises something uniquely Picasso’s own.

Having invented Cubism, Picasso was probably the first artist to lose faith in it. For years he and George Braque had been a double act. Following the breakup came an odd shuttling back and forth of different styles across the next decade, of feints and impostures. But what precisely do these differences in style-type represent? Do they represent different prospective audiences? Different social attitudes to taste? It’s difficult to say. But perhaps they represent some deeper change or retrogression within the artist.

The most frequent point of comparison for “Guitar and Mandolin” is Matisse’s “Still Life after Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s ‘La Desserte'”. The similarities are intriguing when one considers the famous rivalry between Picasso and Matisse. But is it true that “Guitar and Mandolin” was intended as a kind of avantgarde diss track? Was Picasso really attempting to send-up what is Matisse’s least successful cubist venture? Admittedly I am not at all very interested in the veracity of this claim. But at the same time, it establishes an interesting line of inquiry. After all, if “Guitar and Mandolin” is a caricature of Matissean Cubism the question becomes whether the mockery of the mockery holds any kind of actual authentic status. Who in the end is actually being subverted? Is it Matisse or is it Picasso himself? […]