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John Graham - Cave Canem, 1944

Pablo Picasso
The Bird Cage, 1923
Oil on canvas
79 1/8 x 56 1/4 inches
Private Collection

© 2008 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

John Graham

The Case of
Mr. Picasso


If you stand too close to the transmission wheel in a factory, you easily might be caught in it. When meshed in the wheel, you revolve with it and see the world from its angle. An art publicity machine functions very much like any other industrial plant or money-making scheme. A clever, insidious propaganda exhorts pressure everywhere. The first victims to this, as to any propaganda, fall usually the youngest, to most enthusiastic, the most idealistic elements. Once caught into the snares of this machine, they begin to work for it wholeheartedly and for nothing. Thus the ball starts rolling and all kinds of preposterous names sweep up the sky before the eyes of the spellbound public. It takes a powerful brain and a titanic effort to fight oneself loose of this dope. However, sooner or later the propaganda wears itself out and the public is suddenly confronted with stark naked facts. Publicity and propaganda have placed Picasso’s production where it is now and it is already easy to see where it is going to land tomorrow.

          Picasso’s work consists of broad statements and smart, clever generalities. His paintings are glib, brilliant sketches, fetching starts, tasteful, decorative lay-outs. It all has nice design, good decorative color, so-called emotional, swishy technique and is kept in a stage of a fresh, preliminary sketch. But almost everyone’s sketches look interesting, only their finished work looks deadly. It is easy to make sweeping, clever generalities if one is talented but it is difficult to make particular, complete statements such as Raphael’s or Ingres’ even if one is talented because, besides a facility to draw, it demands an ability to attack and surmount final problems and in the super most it requires a spiritual integrity, a morality. In a particular statement you commit yourself and you have to take a stand, it requires a heroic attitude and a long range view. Particular statements must function perfectly, otherwise, they look terrible—here comes the difference between the classic and the academic art. All these suggestive starts, smart generalities and silly puzzles on the side, are nothing else but clever evasions, refusal to take a stand, a lack of a sense of responsibility, an escapism. Picasso is like one of those prizefighters who make the best show on earth in the first round and are invariably knocked out in the second. What he does is very nice and spectacular but it never goes beyond the second round. No doubt he is a talented and malicious little man who can pull rabbits out of a silk hat and baffle the public with shameful little games on the side. Why should you accept a sketch for a painting when you would not accept a half-finished suit from a tailor, an understructure instead of a house, a bridge sketched in a fetching way, or an incomplete automobile? It must be understood, that painting is a definite, particular and rigorous proposition, which leaves no room for witty speculations. Picasso’s best painting is his, so-called, blue period, in which he manifests himself as a lyric and modest illustrator. When this did not take, he decided to baffle the public with square puzzles, pasted paper and other dubious games. The trend of the times and the publicity made it a success. It is all very amusing but why call it painting or, even less, art? If it would not be for the oil, it would be good only for the funny paper or a smart humoristic magazine.

          His classic period is nothing but quick, sometimes tasteful, caricatures of Greek sculpture with grotesque, stencil-like faces. He paints with his tongue in his cheek which is rather cute considering his collectors.

          His fame is a great international, money-making intrigue. His art is a hoax. His artists-followers will defend him to the last not because they believe in him but because without him they have not got commercially a leg to stand on. They claim that he is great because he reflects his time. But to be a great man of one’s epoch does not mean to ride along with the confusing tide of events and fashion. A captain of a ship in distress is not the most frightened passenger on board but a masterly man who, at whatever personal cost, seeks to establish law and order and lead the ship to safe waters. Picasso does not reflect his time but he fits into the psychological pattern of our times, which is, catch as catch can.

          Picasso’s preoccupation with the primitive culture certainly is not progressive but rather a reactionary manifestation, simply because the primitive state precedes the civilized state. Would it not be more modern and progressive to keep on the road of evolutionary development from the point where the old masters left off? Primitive art, marvelous as it is, still belongs to the earlier stages of human development. The primitives have abstracted, condensed and codified potent magic meanings into cryptic, plastic symbols in order to deal safely with them for ritual purposes. Picasso on the other hand, borrows their primitive techniques and deformations for decorative purposes, to baffle and surprise. To appear original, he grinds out new styles every year like a novelty shop. The old masters never thought of originality but only of technical perfection in expressing their spiritual content. Whenever humanity is in debacle and distress, the mode for monstrosities comes up, hence the fashion for primitivism and Picasso paintings. In this country we are particularly guilty in this respect. Talented painters working seriously for some thirty years at their art find no recognition while an old woman who starts to paint at the age of 74 received immediate acclaim. This is the sign of the times. This pernicious vogue for the primitives tends only to lower cultural standards by promoting ignorance and obscurantism. For one thing, we must say, that Rousseau was not a primitive but a sort of another French Ingres only without his skill and knowledge. Cézanne, on the other hand, was a dull, pedantic bore, honest and persistent. He earnestly wanted to learn how to paint, which is very meritorious, but why inflict it on the public? However, such is the force of publicity and advertising that even the clearest minds fall under its spell, for a shorter or longer time.

JOHN GRAHAM (1887–1961) was born Ivan Dombrovski in Kiev. He arrived in New York in 1920. During the heroic decades of American Modernism (1930s-50s), he was a key figure in the history of American Art. As a painter, a connoisseur, a theorist, a curator, he promoted the ideas of European Modernism in America. His 1937 book, System and Dialectics of Art, and the previous year's article in Magazine of Art, Primitive Art and Picasso, have since been essential documents of the period. Long before anyone else, Graham helped and championed Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, and David Smith. His most recent retrospective was held at the Allen Stone Gallery, New York, in 2005.

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Related article in The Sienese Shredder #3
David Carbone - John Graham's Apostasy: For and Against Picasso

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