One of the “women” looks like a yam, a squash, an orange, and a scrotum stuck together. All Works of Art and images Courtesy Musée National Picasso, Paris, © 2010 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY. Photo: Nathaniel Willson, Seattle Art Museum
The Museum Guard's Head


You turn a corner and on the far wall are yams and balls and kidneys and hot dogs, and in front of these painted shapes are actual shapes, bronze sculptures, five of them, called Head of a Woman, Head of a Woman, Bust of a Woman, Head of a Woman, and Bust of a Woman. They are from 1931. They do not look much like women. One looks like a yam, a squash, an orange, and a scrotum stuck together. According to the lady in the audio guide pressed to my ear, they were inspired by Marie-­Thérèse Walter, Picasso's mistress for nine years—beginning when she was 17 and he was 45 and married to someone else. Walter's presence in Picasso's life produced "a tremendously fertile period in Picasso's sculptural production," according to the audio guide, and speaking of fertile, it also produced a daughter (the classy audio guide skips this detail).

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I sat there on a bench trying to concentrate on the heads, the less crazy ones basically just noses attached to miscellaneous other face parts, but was distracted by the guard guarding them. She was dressed like a bruise, in gray and blue, and had two sculptures of black hair, one on each side of her head. She was widest at the waist, like a diamond, and wore, in an amazing Picasso-ish touch that I would not believe if I hadn't been staring at it, a single earring. Big old glittery blue thing dangling from one ear but not the other. (Or was it trapped in her hair somewhere?) I sat there in front of those five messed-up lady faces and listened to the audio guide lady over and over, pretending not to stare at the museum guard lady. According to the audio guide, Marie-Thérèse Walter was so devastated by Picasso's death, even though they hadn't seen each other for years and years, that she hanged herself.

Pablo Picasso, 'Self-portrait before Homme assis au verre during its creation,' 1915-1916

How Old Is Picasso?


I remember almost nothing from the community college art history class I napped through much of (lots of movies), except that the teacher was marginally attractive and not very engaging. Thus, I had somehow conjured an imaginary Pablo Picasso in my mind with almost no basis in reality. This Picasso lived in a much older time. Such an older time, in fact, that I was surprised when the ticket girl mentioned there were photographs of him—or, more specifically, one of him smoking next to Michelangelo's Slave. (Subsequently, the internet has informed me that he died at the ripe old age of 91 in the year 1973.)

Throughout the galleries, handheld "audio tours" caused many of my show-going companions to wander senselessly with devices clasped to their ears, like rudderless boats in an overcrowded pond at night, bumping into one another and generally making a mess of the proceedings. "This one just calls to me," said a youngish Caucasian woman running to the painting that was calling her. Upon leaving, I noticed a piece of writing on a wall label entitled "Picasso and Nick Cave: Meet Me at the Center of the Earth," whose first sentence reads, "If Pablo Picasso was the spine of twentieth-century art, is Nick Cave the biceps of our time?" (Subsequently, the internet has informed me that this Nick Cave is not the same as the singer.)

Pablo Picasso, 'Woman in a Blue Hat,' October 3, 1939 Photo: J.G. Berizzi

I'm Taking a Side


Big noses! Ugly faces! Women's bodies painted to look like bowls of Mini-Wheats! Not interested. Since my first introduction to his work in high school, I'd always assumed his inability to see a woman except as a chopped-up block of crude shapes to be the ultimate insult to the beauty that is the female figure. (Blame the three feminists I went to school with, who hated everyone but Tori Amos.) When I recently saw the portrait Woman in a Blue Hat at SAM, and heard Picasso's explanation for making the faces look that way, though, it all clicked. He often painted the faces the way he saw them while kissing—in pieces: one giant eye, the bulb of the nose, the exaggerated slope of the forehead. Sweet, right? Goofy-looking but totally sweet. While I was approaching the conclusion that I might actually like Picasso's work after all these years, I noticed the woman standing next to me. She was wearing a pair of really ugly jeans with Ed Hardy's signature scrawled across the ass, and she was vocalizing how ugly she thought the painting was. I'll embrace whatever it is that keeps me off her team. It's official: I think Picasso is great.

Strip Club Source Material


Recently, for reasons that escaped me, someone came over to my house and showed me the website for a strip club in New Jersey where they have a live webcam running in one corner of the dressing room 24/7. You can sit in your house or coffee shop or airport or public library anywhere in the world and watch the strippers at this strip club. But the strippers in the dressing room aren't stripping—they're laughing, squatting, gossiping, eating apples, plucking eyebrow hairs, pulling panties out of their butt cracks, running offstage to flop gratefully into waiting chairs. It's interesting, endearing, human, gross, and—as a woman who is sometimes naked, sometimes tired, sometimes eating an apple—relatable. It is not sexy.

Also recently, I stood in a narrow corridor off one of the main Picasso galleries in front of a little drawing called Brothel, Gossip—With a Profile of Degas with Wrinkled Nose. Brothel gossip! Two grinning, squiggly, super-nude gals lounge vagina by vagina, discussing whatever it is you discuss during downtime in a late-19th-century Parisian brothel—­penises, politics, croissants, mustaches, very long gloves, stuff like that. Their words billow and foam into a wicked anthropomorphic curlicue cloud. On the image's right border, Degas's big hairy nose intrudes. He watches from the corner as the women chat, squat, eat, flop. I was laughing about the accompanying placard, which reads, "The artist Edgar Degas visited many Parisian brothels to find source material" (suuuuuuure, Edgar, source material—save your receipts!), when a pair of rotund middle-aged ladies came up behind me. One, wearing a spangly Christmas sweater, whispered to her friend (honestly, this actually happened), "He really was a sexual animal, wasn't he?" "I wonder how big his penis was," someone else giggled. Then they all moved on. Brothel gossip.

My Grandma's Body


Two years ago, on a snowy Christmas Eve in northern Idaho, my grandmother fell asleep in her chair and never woke up—what the funeral director later called a "good death." She donated her body to UW's medical school program as one of the cadavers that students practice on, so when I returned to Seattle after her memorial, she followed me home. I'm told they peeled her face off before the students saw her. They do this so the body is just a body—fried-egg breasts, hair you could find in a vacuum, skin mostly colonized by moles and veins and wrinkles. They also removed other identifying marks, like the garish pink pedicure I'd bought for her 83rd birthday. Then they let the students rename her, like a mascot. I think about that often—how my grandmother is now just a body I wouldn't recognize stored in a cooler less than two miles from my house. She's a dead, but active, part of my city. And her students will never know her—that she died painting my portrait and that she had a whore's taste in jewelry—and I'll never know them. And I'll never see her again.

In the far left corner of Picasso's second room at SAM, there's a pastel-red profile of a head with one staring eye and a gaping mouth. This is The Medical Student. The student's face doesn't fill up its frame, and it isn't artsy or pretty—no lips, no eyelids or lashes, no teeth. In many ways, it's a crap sketch. I wouldn't want it on my wall, even though it's probably worth more than my house. But I stayed with it longer than anything else because sometimes you just crave a face, even if it won't tell you anything.

Pablo Picasso, 'The Kiss,' summer 1925 Photo: J.G. Berizzi

To My Uneducated Eyes


I am skeptical about why I actually love old electronic music, dub from the 1970s, and Philly soul. Is it because the music is relevant, still unmatched in 2010? Or is it just because the genres were seminal to every sect of contemporary music that I also love (techno, hiphop, house)? I worry that I'm mostly nostalgic for, say, Kraftwerk.

I am skeptical about why I actually love Pablo Picasso, I'm thinking when I walk into SAM. Is it because his art is fresh and pertinent, or because it opened the door for the next century of design?

Some Picasso paintings, to my uneducated eyes, read like permission for all future artists to paint weird shit. Take The Tree, which looks more like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle than a plant, that Picasso painted in 1907. I adore its place in history; it says nothing to me in 2010 (except cartoon turtles). But in the next room there is Self-Portrait, a young Picasso cast in thick strokes that telegraph his abstractions to come. In the painting, he's a despondent human with hollow monkey eyes, like when you catch your reflection in a sad moment. It was painted in 1906; it's unnerving still.

Or take The Kiss from 1969. Gustav Klimt's painting of the same name from six decades earlier is sultry, maybe even misogynistic and anachronistic. I prefer Picasso's: two discombobulated expressions and eyes a-­wanderin', just like any awkward real kiss ever.

Pablo Picasso, 'The acrobat,' January 18, 1930

Picasso Dreamed About Limbs


The Acrobat (1930) is a simple, surreal cartoon, almost comical in its minimalism. It's practically a one-line drawing that was seemingly slapdashed off in a few minutes, offering a barely feasible depiction of the body's pliability. With utmost economy (a black curve for an eye, a placid little ripple for a mouth), Picasso etches on his subject's face an expression of Zen bliss, perhaps triggered by the realization that his entire body has become elongated legs and arms, which then reversed roles. How liberating...

Picasso reportedly often experienced dreams in which his limbs grew to absurd dimensions. With primitive suppleness, The Acrobat captures that sort of extravagant wish fulfillment, the byproduct of a mind that likely scarcely harbored a moment of self-doubt. This is phallic gigantism in extremis and a not-so-subtle announcement by Picasso that he can and will do whatever the hell he pleases.

If Picasso were a musician—he was the Miles Davis of painters, as commentators have asserted, right?—The Acrobat would be a non-LP B-side, an anomalous, nonchalant ditty that contains an otherwise unexpressed kernel of the artist's idiosyncratic genius.

Pablo Picasso, 'The reading,' January 2, 1932



Um... that was nice.

There were some pretty paintings, a couple of bronzes that I really liked, and lots of cubist/abstract/whatthefuckist stuff that—sorry—is hard to look at. Not because they're ugly, but because Picasso's whatthefuckist works have so dominated viz art for so long that it's hard to see them. They are, through no fault of their own, visual clichés, much less—for now—than the sum of their media (mediums?). It'll take a couple of centuries before people can see past the clichés and take in the art.

Well, it'll take centuries for me to see past the clichés. And by then I'll be dead.

Speaking of dead: I like to walk around graveyards. I read the tombstones—names and dates—and wonder what happened to the person whose name I'll only briefly remember. How did she die? Who buried her? What did she look like?

Walking around an art museum, I'm drawn to portraits. I stand before portraits of long-dead subjects—artists' models, minor European royals—and wonder who the person was. I don't know their names, or when they were born, or when they died, but I know what they looked like.

Museums are like Irish wakes—the dead on full display—and after a wake, you head to a bar, have a drink, and toast the dead. Which is what I did after seeing the Picasso exhibit. Here's to you, boy dressed as a harlequin.

Pablo Picasso, 'Two women running on the beach (The Race),' Summer 1922

Thawing Him


So many people! Tour groups of old people, nosing around everywhere. This happens every time I come to one of SAM's big-budget exhibitions—that goddamned Edward Hopper exhibit, it was nose-to-ass-to-nose in there, and the jostling odor of the crowds hacked Hopper's lonely majesty to tiny, bloody pieces. After a minute of adjustment, though, I come to love the bustling crowds at the Picasso show. It just makes sense.

Picasso is about volume, about production. He couldn't really draw motion so well—even though his sketches and paintings are full of fucking and murder, his figures always look solid, frozen in time. This is probably why SAM chose Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race) as the poster child for the show. It has the vivaciousness and voluptuousness of a Robert Crumb sketch. It practically vibrates, demonstrating a sense of motion that nothing else here can muster.

Picasso knew movement wasn't his thing, so he worked the way an old animation sweatshop would, producing enormous stacks of artwork by hand. If you piled these all together in chronological order and flipped through them at high speed, that's where motion is hiding. It's all one messy fluid arc—an autobiography of a dirty old man's life, from beginning to end—and we're all coursing through it with our stupid observations and ugly, trembling bodies, endowing velocity to everything.

Pablo Picasso, 'Reclining nude and man playing the guitar,' October 27, 1970

Asshole or Not


Call me a philistine, but the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Pablo Picasso is still the Modern Lovers song: "Some people try to pick up girls and get called assholes/This never happened to Pablo Picasso... Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole." The song is genius because: (1) It's not saying Picasso wasn't an ass­hole, just that, you know, he could get away with it and still paint all the cubist nudes he could get his hands on (or, vice versa, get his hands on all the cubist nudes he could paint), and (2) Picasso was almost certainly called an asshole... even by girls he picked up (you can buy the book in the SAM gift shop!).

It is crazy to me that the Modern Lovers recorded this song while Picasso was still alive and painting, in 1972; in my mind, Picasso belongs to an entirely different century than Jonathan Richman. But one of the last enormous paintings you see before you leave the exhibit is Reclining Nude and Man Playing Guitar, dated 1970 (with The Musician from 1972 next to it), and there it all is: the artist, instrument in hand, giant cartoon foot dangling over his odalisque, immune even in old age from being reduced to an asshole. Then again, the other thing that comes to mind is Michael Kupperman's funnybook Snake 'n' Bacon's Cartoon Cabaret, in which Picasso is a tiny homicidal asshole, constantly threatening to cut his enemies up into "leetle cubes."

Pablo Picasso, 'Still life with pitcher and apples,' 1919

Three Pitchers


Two apples sit atop a plate that sits atop a dirty-white ceramic pitcher. This is Still Life with Pitcher and Apples, the stillest of still lives. You can feel the dust floating through the air, the plate keeping it away from the water—water that's unseen, but so still it must not be disturbed, not by falling dust and certainly not by the thirsty. We are in 1919. The pitcher is showing its hips and belly, one hand in the small of its curvy back to help the noticers take notice. Notice long enough, and up where the water-you-won't-get would come out, there's a pre-cubist premonition of a snout-mouth.

Another room, another year, another pitcher. This one yellow, elegant, and hiding out from the rest of the 1931 party that is Large Still Life on a Pedestal Table. This pitcher has big breasts and much butt, curlicue hand on hip, no plate to cover its lips, no tempting apples weighing it down. Something else can hold the damn apples. Put them on the pedestal table. Put them on a pedestal platter on top of the pedestal table. Let the rest of the scene warp and whoop. Let it be un-still and distorted. The pitcher has other business to attend to. It's not even looking at this mess. Don't ask for a drink. It's not listening.

War comes, and the pitcher armors up. We are in another room, in 1945, looking at Pitcher and Skeleton. All is black and white and gray and sharp-edged, cubed as one cubes with a knife. This pitcher is not about sexy. It is about the fight. It looks at the skeleton crawling toward it and says: Nice try. Go on with your dry death breath.

Pablo Picasso, 'The Village Dance,' 1922

The Reason She Is Still Around


I'm pretty certain I was the only one awestruck by the non-cubist portrait Seated Woman (1920). Picasso did lots of portrait studies of women titled, simply, Seated Woman. Picasso also did lots of women. It's striking how in ye olden times, a man had a "mistress." What a pretty word: mistress! These days, he'd be a CHEATER—no better than those chumps on the "You Are Not the Father!" episodes of the Maury Povich Show. Dude was a man-whore.

Fernande, Eva, Olga, Marie-Thérèse, Dora, Francoise, Jacqueline—and who knows how many more. He fathered four children by three different women. Post-Picasso, Fernande "lived in sorrow," Olga became a stalker, Marie-Thérèse committed suicide, and Jacqueline shot herself. Francoise was the only one who ever left Picasso. She told the New York Times, in 1996: "Painting women's portraits was one way Picas­so thought he seduced them. I told him: 'I love you and it has nothing to do with that. I love you as you, and as a painter, but whether you do or do not paint me doesn't matter.' Of course, as an artist, I was interested to see how he would do my portrait. But what I mean is that I felt entirely free and independent of his portraits. I did not define myself by them, put myself inside them. And that is the reason I am still around. Because other women identified themselves with his portraits. And then when Picasso stopped making them, it was over for those women."

So what struck me as awesome about Seated Woman, Paris? I don't know which one of his ladies sat for this one—I'd happily argue it's NONE of them. Look at the face. Those eyes! It's Pablo himself. He put his own frickin' face on a woman's body. And not just any body—a woman's body with big fat hot-dog hands and weird tree stumps for feet. Why would he do that? He also did it in The Village Dance (1922) in the same gallery. I mean, look at that one! It's Picasso dancing with himself! I don't have an exact theory for either, but to me, these two paintings have more of Pablo's ego—his true personality—than anything else in the entire exhibition. recommended

Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer: Jan 13-Feb 14 at Bagley Wright Theatre
Part theater, part revival, and all power, this one-woman show will have your head nodding and hands clapping!