Revisiting the Modernist Canon: Pepe Karmel’s Looking at Picasso

Photo of young Picasso.

Photo (C) RMN-Grand Palais

Now and again, we can see our long settled view of art’s history threatening to change, as if before our eyes. And when that happens, it can be immensely suggestive to understand what’s happening, for often larger issues are at stake. Right now the modernist canon is in flux. Hilma af Klint, whose works were unknown a generation ago, has been shown in a major London show alongside Piet Mondrian. It has been claimed that Wu Guangzhong, a Chinese artist who is not a familiar figure to most Western critics (1919-2010) was a peer of Matisse. And Pepe Karmel’s recent major survey Abstract Art: A Global History (2020) has an af Klint on the front cover and a painting by Wosene Worke Kosrof, a contemporary Ethiopian painter on the back. Now, as was not the case a generation ago, modernism includes women and artists from outside the West.

If any Western modernist has a secure reputation, it has to be Pablo Picasso, thanks to his variety of art, very long working life, and celebration by generations of critics. He is the subject of the most lavish biography devoted to any artist, John Richardson’s four volumes which only take his life up to 1943. Pepe Karmel’s Looking at Picasso (2023) starts with a statement that is sure to be highly controversial: “Picasso was the greatest artist of the twentieth century.” Could that judgment change? Very recently, in ways Karmel perhaps did not entirely anticipate, that judgment was much questioned. In summer 2023 there was a wildly controversial, much discussed show “It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby,” at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. And when the last volume of Richard’s biography was published posthumously, in her high profile New York Times review of the last volume of Richardson’s life Siri Hustvedt wrote:

He is a signifier for male genius that caters to a collective sickness, which revels in the denigration and punishment of women. It is this broader cultural myth, founded on context-dependent prior beliefs, that requires interrogation, not by censorship, but by discussion, a discussion that is absent from Richardson’s biography.

Many contemporary writers would agree with her claims.

Karmel’s book is a highly sophisticated comprehensive tightly edited life with excellent plates. It covers Picasso in a way that is both far reaching in exploration of the vast literature and fair-minded, a combination which is not easy to achieve. The successive chapters cover his early works, cubism and then to return to more conservative images, surrealism, Guernica and Picasso’s political art, and a little (too little maybe) on the late art. Looking at Picassso is an amazing scholarly achievement.

What’s at stake here are not the facts, for Picasso’s life has by now been very well documented. Rather the question is what to make of these facts. Everyone is agreed that Picasso, born in 1881, was, as we say, a man of his time, wildly promiscuous, often overbearing, sadistic in his treatment of women. And to complete the catalogue of his fascination with activities that have become politically incorrect, he loved bullfighting. His art reflects his personality. But also, as Karmel notes, he was often tender, sometimes brave and frequently generous to many friends. And many women and men find his art immensely affecting. What’s amazing to me in Richardson’s biography is Picasso ability to keep work until the most difficult, highly chaotic circumstances.

It’s hard to imagine writing a history of modernism without giving Picasso a prominent role. Most of us sometimes behave well but at other times badly. Certainly I do. What’s special about the case of Picasso is that because he was so famous, rich and powerful, he could act on a scene typically found only in the lives of our DOT.COM billionaires or celebrities from the entertainment industry. If he never physically directly harmed anyone, he certainly intentionally caused more than his share of mental anguish. The long-standing pattern of his exploitative relationships, as a very prosperous older man, with young attractive women, is something that now attracts suspicion. Still, while the people (especially the women) associated with him often did all sorts of obviously self-destructive things, that after all was their choice. Sometimes people enjoy being foolish. But what of course now heavily influences this discussion are very fashionable legitimate general worries about the overheated art market, the status of the art museum and the whole history of colonialism, MeToo and present political protest movements. And if Picasso is an ideal stalking horse for this critical thinking, that’s because he is so prominent a white male European artist.

Thinking with real uncertainty about how to plausibly present these concerns, I focused on Karmel’s book and asked myself: Is this critical account of Siri Hustvedt plausible? And so I looked at the hundred some plates to find relevant examples. Karmel discusses Meditation: Contemplation (1904), in which the watcher attends to his sleeping female companion. He analyzes The Painter and His Model (1927), Picasso’s image of a man performing oral sex on the woman. And he presents the artist’s portrait of his son Paolo on a Donkey (1923). In general, neither the cubist works nor the still lives nor the many late redoing of old master pictures are likely to bother Picasso’s critics. It’s surrealism that mostly causes the troubles, for there Picasso’s sadism found reign. But in developing this analysis, I don’t mean to hold my evaluation of Karmel’s book hostage to these larger cultural changes, whose outcome is by no means clear. Looking at Picassso stands on its own. A model of how to do politically responsible art history, it is as good as it gets. I ended up impressed with how well his account of this problematic artist stood up to these present challenges.

Kernel says that his book, neither a biography nor an account of Picasso’s vast influence, celebrates the artist’s freedom. He achieves that aim with entire success. Picasso the cubist, the Neo-classical artist and the political painter: all of these very varied figures appear in clear focus. In the future, will that freedom be more generally shared? That question is as yet impossible to answer. Looking at Picassso is an essential contribution to this ongoing discussion.


For this claim about Wu Guangzhong see my review with Liu Haiping, “Wu Guangzhong, National Art Museum of China,” Burlington Magazine, CLI (May 2009): 348-9. On Picasso see my “Painting as Performance Art: The Case of Picasso,” Picasso. Graphic Magician. Prints from the Norton Simon Museum, (Stanford University, 1998): 75-96. There is a great deal of information on-line about “It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby.” The best account of Deborah Solomon, Picasso: Love Him or Hate Him?,

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.