Visual Art

As the National Gallery of Victoria’s new exhibition reveals, Picasso believed that art was a kind of magic.

By Mahmood Fazal.

The Picasso Century

Installation view of The Picasso Century exhibition at NGV International.
Installation view of The Picasso Century exhibition at NGV International.
Credit: Sean Fennessy

Pablo Picasso lived through the Spanish Civil War and World War I and II. While he was living in occupied Paris, the Gestapo stormed into his home and pointed at his Guernica mural, asking, “Did you do that?” To which he famously replied, “No, you did.”

Those experiences are reflected in this year’s Melbourne Winter Masterpieces series at the National Gallery of Victoria, which is presenting The Picasso Century – a monumental showcase of more than 80 works by one of the 20th century’s most influential artists, supplemented by more than 100 works by the artists, poets and intellectuals who were his peers.

In the first room of the exhibition, black-and-white images of men in uniforms digging trenches are spliced between a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire: “Wounded in the head trepanned under chloroform / Having lost my best friends in the frightful conflict … I judge this long quarrel between tradition and invention / Order and adventure.”

In the following room, a small painting by Pablo Picasso depicts the death of his friend, the painter Carles Casagemas, who shot himself in a Parisian restaurant after he was rejected by Picasso’s former lover and friend Germaine Gargallo, at whom he first aimed the gun. In the painting there’s a bullet hole in Casagemas’ temple. His head is illuminated by a candle in broad strokes of yellow, orange and blue.

The longer we observe the painting – standing where Picasso once stood as he imagined the death of his friend – the more we take part in the life of the painting, quietly watching as the colour of Casagemas’ aqua-tinted face seems to drown. It recalls the line from Hamlet’s soliloquy: “To die, to sleep; / To sleep, perchance to dream – /… For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / Must give us pause...”

While Apollinaire described the pendulum swing between invention and tradition, Picasso worked with an impression of innocence. While attending an exhibition of children’s artworks, Picasso once said, “When I was the age of these children I could draw like Raphael: it took me many years to learn how to draw like these children.”

He understood that in its purest form, representation was about the harnessing and expression of feeling. Art becomes a childlike experience unbound by social constructs or art-world pretensions. In trying to comprehend the meaning of his fractured images we are spellbound, discovering something about ourselves in the light of his unadulterated mindscape.

In whose image do we see ourselves? Why do we react the way we do, emotionally or physically? Where do those reactions come from? How might we express those intangible reflections to others? What will that expression communicate? What becomes of the ricochet?

“The image is not something innocent,” says Didier Ottinger, curator of the exhibition and assistant director of the Centre Pompidou at the Musée National d’art Moderne in Paris. “It’s not something you can do just like that. You have to be conscious that you are making something special.”

He takes a moment to reflect and suggests that this is explored in a new book, Picasso sorcier, by Diana Widmaier-Picasso, Picasso’s granddaughter, which examines how Picasso obsessively collected everyday objects and imbued them with significance. “Picasso was from the south of Spain. [He was] very superstitious. His painting is connected to that superstition,” says Ottinger. “For him, a work of art is not something to be hung on the wall as a decorative object. It has a strength. It interacts with the viewer from its context with their context. It is powerful.”

Discussing magic and animism in Totem and Taboo, Sigmund Freud wrote: “People speak with justice of the ‘magic’ of art and compare artists to magicians. But the comparison is perhaps more significant than it claims to be. There can be no doubt that art did not begin for art’s sake. It worked originally in the service of impulses which are for the most part extinct today. And among them we may suspect the presence of many magical purposes.”

Given this little-known aspect of Picasso’s psyche, it’s perhaps not surprising that in the 1920s he joined the Surrealism movement. André Breton’s 1924 Surrealist manifesto declared that the movement celebrated “psychic automatism” while highlighting “the omnipotence of dream”. “Suddenly, with Surrealism, he was open to a new horizon which was the unconscious, the desire, the violence,” says Ottinger.

In 2015, a research team led by psychologist Verena Graupmann discovered that subjects who had been contemplating death found greater reassurance and meaning in Surrealist art. Graupmann concludes, “This corresponds to the idea that – although at first sight difficult to decode – Surrealistic art offers access to reassurance on a different level of understanding.”

How do we trace these different levels of understanding? In Kalgoorlie, residents of the Amana Living aged-care home can take part in an art initiative called Project Picasso. The program helps residents living with dementia stimulate their minds and memories by producing works of art for an exhibition. The process helps relocate invisible feelings. Towards the end of the program, the centre holds a Project Picasso exhibition. Recently, resident Laura Baetsen presented a work where she painted over one side of a photograph of an ancient teal-coloured mask with gold details and Aztec patterns. The mask’s left cheek is swamped with Laura’s thick paint – mirroring the real mask like a metaphysical infinity mirror, with her mind’s eye distilling its reflection.

Baetsen’s work questions the truth of the mask, as it becomes two-faced, wondering whether it’s behind masks that we can express who we really are or, on the other side, whether the art on the canvas is a deconstruction of the artist’s mask.

In Surrealism, as in psychoanalysis, there are no boundaries. The mind’s jigsaw is unveiled through fragments of memory, nostalgia, fantasy, fear, desire and dream. Imagination and reality melt into a single atmosphere. Our emotions become the tool with which we see ourselves.

At the NGV, in a room dedicated to Picasso’s period of Surrealism, hangs Bullfight: death of the female toreador, a work of oil paint and pencil on wood depicting a bullfight. The arena is pale, with a soft contrast and a pastel palette of sky blue and carnation pink. A nude woman lies across the back of a white horse, swept under the bull’s blow. Her head fuses with the face of the fuming bull. It’s a violent image of death made sensual with colour and made whimsical by dance-like gestures.

As spectators, we watch Picasso throw sex and death into his bullring. Both animal and human fall, out of breath, as his transfiguration of life becomes a staged performance we pay for. The colours conjure a view of joy and passion in stark contrast to the earlier pieces from his Blue period, which left bruises all over his melancholic work. In Freudian theory, the death drive opposes Eros: he writes about a “separation of the death instincts from the life instincts”. Picasso distils these together until we’re left with vascularity and smudges of lavender smoke. The colliding forces in the aftermath, a pastel yet sombre paradox, are reduced to “la petite mort”, the brief experience after orgasm – likened to death.

The exhibition draws to a close with a three-channel video installation by Rineke Dijkstra, I See a Woman Crying (Weeping Woman). The work features close-up footage of nine children aged 11 to 12 who are responding to Picasso’s Weeping Woman painting. While unveiling the ritual of the school art trip, Dijkstra demonstrates what she describes as the children’s “uninhibited quality”. We never see the painting.

“Maybe that’s a soul going into her mouth,” says a young boy with a shaved head. “Maybe Picasso just wanted to do a colourful picture and he drew it like that’s how they feel inside. He paints how people feel.”

In the final room of the exhibition, a quote on the wall from Picasso reads, “It’s up to the public to see what it wants to see.” It takes a magician to hold the mirror. 

The Picasso Century is showing at NGV International, Melbourne until October 9.


MUSIC Leaps and Bounds Music Festival

Venues throughout Melbourne, June 24–July 24


Heath Ledger Theatre, Perth, June 24–July 2

CABARET Adelaide Cabaret Festival

Venues throughout Adelaide, until June 25

EXHIBITION Gay Hawkes: The House of Longing

Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart, until August 28

EXHIBITION Rebirth is Necessary

Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, until July 9


FESTIVAL Vivid Sydney

Venues throughout Sydney, until June 18

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 18, 2022 as "Modernist sorceries".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription