Jewish World Review June 23, 2006 / 27 Sivan, 5766

Paul Greenberg

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Picasso in Little Rock: Pictures at an exhibition | With apologies to T.S. Eliot, in this room the women come and go/talking of . . . Picasso. The scene is the Arkansas Arts Center here in Little Rock, where a show called Pursuing Picasso is having its preview, and the din in the atrium is overpowering as people pursue one another over wine and cheese.

A latecomer feels as though he's walking into the arena after most of the bulls have been slaughtered, but the hardiest aficionados have stayed late. It's a nice change after thinking about politics all day — a step into the surreal, or maybe into the real. Picasso is like that: so surreal he's real. He kept stepping out of the arbitrary frame where time had placed him and playing tricks on the rest of us still inside the picture.

Art, like faith, is transcendent. Picasso transcended art and returned to play.

Ortega y Gasset speaks of the sportive origins of civilization, as if it all began with the hunting pack and the organization and coordination it required. Picasso demonstrates the sportive origin of art, only his is not a team sport. He plays singles only. Him against the world as it drably was before he came along to illuminate it, to turn it inside out and every way but loose.

You may not approve of the result, but you keep looking anyway. Approval or disapproval has nothing to do with it. It's like bullfighting that way.

The first Picasso on display hits you in the eye as soon as you step into the gallery, filling the wall like a stomach-churning carnival ride. It's striking, all right, especially the putrid green. Like a pie in the face. A key lime pie.

They've brought my favorite picture out of cool storage for the show: Pierre Bonnard's "Marthe Entering the Room." Gouache, pencil on paper. So simple, so overwhelming. It's like meeting an old girlfriend on a crowded sidewalk — an unexpected, embarrassing pleasure. You're mind-tied, and don't know what to think. Even more than before, the sensations come rushing at you: the sense of expectation; the assurance of the familiar; the awareness of how much you've changed even if she hasn't; the tug of old love. Bonnard's picture blanks out everything else all around; the crowd disappears. There is nothing but you and it.

Once upon a time I would go home at the end of the day, sit at the end of a long, narrow light-filled kitchen and nurse a drink while watching a woman prepare supper. We would talk, but I can't remember a word we said, or if we said much at all. Only the picture of it remains in my mind, suspended in time, simple, watercolor soft, pencil on paper. And the peace of it. Like Marthe entering a room.

Picasso, I think, will be anticlimax.

"That's not painting, what he does," Picasso said of Bonnard. Maybe it isn't. Maybe it's better.

Bonnard was greater than Picasso because, even if Picasso despised him, Bonnard admired Picasso. He kept a reproduction of Picasso's post-cubist "Woman Seated in a Chair" in his studio. I keep a reproduction of "Marthe Entering the Room" taped to my office wall. High up. I can go for days, weeks, without looking at it, or remembering it's there. Then I look up.

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I should be taking notes on the Picassos, but I can't tear myself away from the Bonnard, and soon it will be closing time, and the lights will dim.

I don't think much about life after death. Too abstract, too much responsibility. Isn't enough enough? Don't we ever get to lay our burden down? On those thankfully rare occasions when someone tries to talk to me about the next world, I feel like replying, "Please. One world at a time."

But looking at Marthe forever entering the room, the promise and assurance of it, it's hard to ward off an intimation of immortality, the feeling of a world everlasting, the door always open, Marthe always about to enter. The artist's love for her is evident in every line and soft color. It fills the picture, the gallery, the museum, the world, overflowing into the next.

Diego Rivera's cubist women ("Two Women," 1914) have been rolled out for the show, too, as a kind of preface to Picasso. It wouldn't be the first time the preface outshines the book. "The damned best thing in the museum," a woman says. I have to agree. It shimmers. Like a myopic's view of the world without his glasses. It's the world a moment before it was ready to be revealed. Its essence doesn't quite fit into its outlines yet. Surfaces shift, edges become interiors, reality is still fuzzy. We're left to feel our way about. And the picture is large. Like the world beckoning.

The plodding heart of the show consists of some minor early Picassos, all worth seeing, and a very late collection of scrawlings on cardboard, notable for their author, not their art. Plus a selection of the artist's ceramics, stuck on like a separate wing of a nice jewelry store.

It's not Picasso's fault he's outdone at his own show; every museum is limited to the pictures it has or can beg, borrow or get on extended loan. And the Picassos on display tonight are less than his best. Secondary, maybe not even tertiary, examples of his work. Just glimpses of Picasso. Some may be riveting, but they're still only glimpses.

The Picassos turn out to be an afterthought, the reason for the show but not the best in show.

Talk about works of art, nothing in the show is quite so touching as the young women walking about in their simple summer frocks on a June evening. Nothing on the walls so artfully combines sincerity and artifice. Are they hunting this evening or being hunted? Both, probably. On them, the malice of time has not yet worked its wisdom, thank G-d. They are still only cunning. ————— The show, which began June 2, runs till Sept. 3, at the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock. Its best works go from here to eternity.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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