PARIS — The long work on the Musée national Picasso is finally over, and it has majestically reopened at the Hôtel Salé, bringing with it a new wave of Pablo Picasso admiration in which I share. I have hungered for some pure Picasso over the past five years and tried to ignore the surreal scandal (the dismissal of the museum’s president, Anne Baldassari, by the French government) and the crisis that swirled about the artist himself (the tumult of yet another impassioned mêlée over possession of the artist’s legacy). Accordingly, today I feel the same way about the newly finished museum as I used to feel about the old one: a powerful admiration for the blend of sophistication and provocation that is Picasso’s restless imagination. And an appreciation for an artist who took risks to find new forms of articulation by deciding to unlearn what he had so well learned. Suitably, the museum’s unrivaled self-collection of Picasso’s work reopened on the anniversary of his birth (October 25, 1881) in this grand and greatly expanded space, the product of a huge renovation that ran years overdue amid recriminations and allegations of mismanagement. It is at last finished.
Interestingly enough, Picasso claimed that to finish something — like a painting — is to kill it, to rid the painter and the picture of its soul. But doesn’t the artist’s signature mean just that: a finished work of art? Usually it not only signifies and identifies the creator of the work (eliminating issues such as the individuality of the artist versus the artist’s workshop), but also makes a sign that the artist is satisfied with the picture and no longer considers it a work in progress. Of course, how, when and where artists add their signatures to a work of art is a matter of personal preference, and rarely stays the same throughout the entire career. But they usually do sign them, somewhere, somehow.
The two-gallery exhibition Pablo Picasso Portraits de facto challenges this notion by presenting an interesting counter-example: a group of Picasso paintings and drawings never before seen by the public because they were never signed (a prickly cluster-fuck situation for the art market). Yet they have all been totally verified as original and authentic by Christian Zervos in his Cahiers d’Art archive book, known by many simply as the Zervos. It remains the most trusted reference to the works of Picasso, prepared by Cahiers d’art founder Christian Zervos in direct collaboration with Picasso. The Zervos was published between 1932 and 1978 and contains 16,000 images in thirty-three volumes.
During his life, Picasso was certainly a prolific art maker; known later in life for very visibly signing and dating his work on the front. The man who said, “Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth” apparently had much to lie about, starting with his first art exhibition at the age of thirteen. He then went on to radically change art with a river of Cubist and Surrealist work that flowed until his death at the age of 91, now valued up to $124 million per painting, when signed. Proliferation be damned.
So does the artist’s signature make for artistic merit and truth? Is that how the artistic truth of painting survived the so-called “death of the author” — a fatality proclaimed by Roland Barthes in 1968 and 1971 and by Michel Foucault in 1969? Is it the signature that marks the creator as truthful lie, as the guarantor of creative meaning? Is it, contradicting Picasso, what allows painting its legitimacy, its soul and its power to live?
The notion of the “death of painting” could almost be equaled to that of the death of the signature in art. This “death of painting” has been a memorable saying of the artistic avant-gardes since the 1920s, when artists like Kazimir Malevich (in 1920) proclaimed that painting has lived its life, and that the painter is nothing but a prejudice of the past. This general downer notion was reiterated again by certain avant-garde artists, such as proponents of ready-mades, conceptual art, arte povera, Fluxus art actions, land art, and later within the domains of performance, installations, multimedia and digital genres. According to Foucault, the art author is not the source of signification that marks the existence of an artwork — in other words, the author does not precede the work. The signed mark of the author establishes a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses. In short, the signature impedes the free circulation of art: its free manipulation, its free composition, decomposition, and re-composition. The author’s signature is therefore an ideological form that conceptually eliminates the panic of proliferation.
Perhaps the current issue raised around Picasso’s prolific signature (and lack thereof) in these two shows quietly suggests something worth thinking about: our current state of non-anarchistic nostalgia for the days of uncontested aesthetic empire where, at one point, Picasso could claim to be essential to determining the canon of contemporary art. Except post-media aesthetics have somewhat undermined the very notion of his canon based on signature — or at least made the logic of signed canonization more opaque. The paradox is that Picasso’s paintings and drawings were aesthetically important as canon precisely when he adopted a position antagonistic to society and art’s normal sphere of reception. The key phrases used to define Picasso’s art as distinguished and important are resistance and refusal of servitude. Even his portraits, as we see here, were signs of a transformation coupled to social comment.
This inherent creative negativity in Picasso’s best artwork originally consisted in a dissatisfied, subversive and progressive-reformism, by which they contributed to social emancipation. The opposite of this negative function for art is a swank affirmative swagger that turns art into an instrument of social dominance. That is time and again a bit sensed in the new museum at Hôtel Salé.
Happily, the unsigned problematic of the Picasso paintings here, held so long from public view, places his art back into the position of difficult aesthetic phenomenon, where personal foibles fuck with the art world fuzz, those that surround art and patrol its frontiers. The work’s lack of a closing signature blurs its function as article of trade. And that kind of noisy transcendence is something that cannot effortlessly become an aesthetic commodity.
Pablo Picasso Portraits continues at Bouquinerie de L’Institut (12, rue de Seine, Paris) and Galerie de la Bouquinerie (3 bis, rue des beaux-arts, Paris) through December 15.