A Close Look at Picasso’s Legacy

From the comfort of his warmly-lit Californian home, John Walsh, Director Emeritus of the Getty Museum, ambles along the twisting footpath of Picasso’s career in his four-lecture sequence “Pablo Picasso at Yale.” Walsh is flanked by bookshelves, nearly ceiling-high, filled with thick-spined art books. Atop one, a small wooden drawing mannequin raises both hands as if conducting a symphony orchestra. Beside another shelf, a marble bust of a woman faces away from us. 

Walsh is primarily known for being an acclaimed scholar of Dutch art, but he speaks about Picasso with a quiet assuredness, making the series feel less like a barrage of technical art history and more like a chance to wander through an exhibition with a friendly mentor. The lectures are uploaded to the Yale University Art Gallery’s YouTube channel, and each has several thousand views. 

Walsh’s parents, he explains while speaking to me, cautioned him against modern art while he was growing up, largely because Picasso—the most famous modern artist at the time—was known as a Spanish-French communist with an unfavorable reputation beyond the innermost circles of the art world. Yet later in his life, Walsh found himself using art from the modern and contemporary floor of the YUAG quite frequently as he taught the Wurtele Gallery Teachers—a group of interdisciplinary graduate students training to teach in art galleries. Through this experience, he gradually became more comfortable with 20th-century art and grew increasingly interested in the preeminent artists of the time. 

Inspired by his interactions with these modern and contemporary works, two years ago Walsh devised what he calls “a whole menu” of lectures on various modern and contemporary artists whom he admired but had previously been intimidated by, even as an art historian. In an interview with the Herald, he explains, “I thought it might be interesting for people who have little experience with Picasso to have another person with a little more experience, but no great specialized knowledge, talk to them and to help work through the puzzles of interpretation and understanding and so forth.” He seems to view the lectures as a learning process for both him and the audience.   

Walsh’s initial research focused broadly on works in the YUAG’s modern art wing, but his interest quickly narrowed to Picasso. Perhaps Walsh’s reason for lecturing on Picasso was entirely personal, Picasso being one of the only prodigious artists that Walsh had never deeply explored. He was unmatched in his inventiveness and in his output of over 20,000 works, as Walsh tells us in the very first lecture. But maybe more than his impressive oeuvre, Walsh wanted to talk about Picasso because of the paradox contained in his life and works: “I think he’s certainly the most famous name in modern art, and it’s hard not to have been exposed to him in some way or another, if only by looking at a poster or a reproduction of Guernica or something like that. [Yet] he went out of his way to confuse, befuddle audiences.” Decoding and working through his art is usually a complicated affair, and Walsh takes on this task with a mostly lay audience.

Walsh conceived of the Picasso series before the pandemic, picturing eight lectures in front of a live audience. He grins as he notes that to have proposed such a great volume of lectures “was really pretty cheeky of me.” Eventually, he worked with coordinators at the YUAG to pare this gargantuan project down, focusing mostly on YUAG art so that people could see the works for themselves after each lecture. “We settled on four lectures, and so it was a combination of self-education on my part to prepare for what I love the most to do, which is get in front of some single thing and try to work through why it works, if it works, and why.” 

To preserve this social element and encourage the audience’s direct engagement, the team hosted live discussions the day after each lecture. These conversations were mainly between Walsh and another person with great knowledge about modern and contemporary works, from professors to YUAG curators, but the ultimate goal was still to reflect the audience members’ interests. Walsh also loves these types of conversations, “I’ve done a lot of work in this field and nothing, nothing, has ever approached the kick I get out of being with a few people in front of a work of art. There is just nothing like it.” 

Keely Orgeman, the Seymour H. Knox Jr. Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the YUAG, recalls her preparation for the discussions. “In thinking about what questions to ask, I tried to consider aspects of John’s lecture that he mentioned but might not have fully elaborated on because of needing to move to another topic,” she said. “These points seemed to be ones that the audience might want to know more about.”

Although the audience cannot gather together in the YUAG, Orgeman notes that there are some ways in which the online discussion allows for greater participation. “I was able to field questions coming in from the audience in real time, which related to the questions that I had for John.” This was quite a bit more flexible than the in-person lectures because she notes that, “This kind of exchange doesn’t normally happen in most in-person programs, which often leave only the final minutes for the audience to respond. But in this virtual format, it felt natural to have a back-and-forth dialogue between the audience, John, and me.” 

The lectures are also designed to encourage open engagement, as they don’t require audience members to have any prior knowledge of or familiarity with the works. Something not immediately obvious about the lectures is that they are not a biography of Picasso; the intention is not for the audience to come away from each lecture with a repository of facts about Picasso, but rather to practice looking closely at singular works. Notably, Walsh always introduces works by giving the audience space and time to feel their own way around, pausing silently on each image for a few moments before gently nudging the viewer towards one potential arc of meaning by focusing on a series of close-up details. He also wants his audience to realize that even if it’s inconvenient to look at a work in person, viewing an original is significantly more impactful than viewing a digital copy. This in-person looking, in his words, “gives you a chance to have things penetrate you and not just be explained by you.”

Molleen Theodore, an Associate Curator of Programs at the YUAG and one of the primary organizers of the series, points out that “much of what John does, if you look across the forty-some-odd lectures that he has offered at the Gallery, is about looking. He starts with the work​, how it was created, what it was created for, and then​ he zooms out [to fill in history and context].” She adds that for this lecture in particular, “Some of it of course is about the subject, but it’s also about a methodology, an approach to looking at art, and that​ approach can be applied​ more broadly across art history, enriching and bringing joy to museum experiences.” 

Walsh even explicitly says in our interview, “What you do to understand Picasso’s work is an activity that is applicable to looking at all kinds of other things.” Walsh’s and Theodore’s points illustrate that the lectures are simultaneously about Picasso and not about him at all; they hope the audience will walk away with a greater ability to closely examine a variety of works, rather than become Picasso specialists. 

In the past couple of years, advocacy groups and scholars have increased efforts to more closely examine art institutions — an era marked by protests against problematic museum board members and renewed interest in interrogating the power dynamics undergirding museums and artists. Picasso, specifically, has been criticized for his abusive behavior towards women and colonialist appropriation of tribal images. However, there is no perfect approach to discussing these artists’ works (and the question of whether we should discuss them at all is a difficult one). In Picasso’s case, his attitude towards women bleeds into his work, but the sheer variation of representations of women in his work makes the discussion complicated—especially for those not anointed into the art world. 

Walsh’s lectures, however, walk the fine line between providing necessary historical and social context and closely examining the art itself. Interspersed throughout the lectures is the thread of Picasso’s relationship with women, from his early brothel paintings to the later portraits of his mistresses. Walsh combines a critical evaluation of the precise messaging contained in the works with a wider contextual evaluation. 

Applying this methodology of close looking to artists with controversial lives and works is not only useful as a heuristic for the general public, but might also help galleries rethink their approach to presenting the works of artists like Picasso. 

MoMA’s renovation in 2019 included a renewed effort towards instituting more frequent exhibition rotations and reinstallation strategies in order to inform and contextualize what the general public thinks of as “master pieces.” Closer to home, at the YUAG, Orgeman has had the opportunity to reinstall the wing that contains most of the Picasso paintings and to consider new ways of arranging and positioning these objects. 

“John’s lectures have made me think about how visitors to the museum might look at these works by Picasso and his contemporaries differently.” She continues, “Since John focused on [the] rivalry between Matisse and Picasso, I wonder how I could juxtapose the two artists’ work in the galleries and what other artistic relationships from this period I might similarly highlight.” 

Orgeman has also been toying with the idea of a more frequent rotation of works, a smaller-scale version of what MoMA does. In terms of contextualizing works, although other museums have experimented with cross-movement exhibitions—for example, a Picasso painting placed next to an African mask or a Faith Ringgold painting 60 years its junior—Orgeman believes that wall texts or labels might be a better place to start. In her opinion, these types of juxtapositions are not necessarily favorable for Ringgold or the African mask artist because they have their own achievements independent of a Picasso comparison. “I question whether Picasso viewed African or Iberian sculptures or masks in terms of their makers being creative equals to himself. Though it’s impossible to know the full range of Picasso’s attitudes towards these objects, I do think he engaged in what we would now call cultural appropriation.” Juxtaposing these works without proper explanation might harm the message of the other piece.  

Since there isn’t yet a satisfying solution to the in-gallery displays of art like Picasso’s, the work of educating viewers about these important issues must extend outside the gallery. The live discussions that followed Walsh’s lectures exemplify one example of a fruitful space to build awareness. In one such discussion, Orgeman made sure to delve deeply into a comparison of Picasso’s depiction of men versus women in his cubist portraits. This type of artwork-centric questioning allowed her to tease out a narrative that Walsh didn’t have time to fully explore in his lectures. 

Walsh’s lecture series and its accompanying discussions have shed light on a number of often-overlooked themes, from the recurring image of the harlequin in Picasso’s art to his return to figurative works after his cubist period. Walsh’s lectures are insightful, witty, and refreshing in their dedication to “close reading” individual works, especially during a time when we cannot look closely at art in person.

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