A couple of years ago I spent some time in Vallauris, France, the town where Picasso made his ceramic pieces. I met some of the ceramicists who worked in the village at the same time and even assisted Picasso at Madoura Pottery. One of them told me a story about a young ceramicist who had made an exceptional piece — everyone agreed. It was extraordinary. He showed it to Picasso, who took it in his hands and agreed that this was really something, a masterpiece, in fact. He then quite deliberately opened his hands and let the piece fall to the ground where it was instantly destroyed.
This story came to mind this summer as I walked through the exhibition “Picasso Looks at Degas” at the Sterling Clark Museum in Williamstown, Massachusettes. Much of the show seemed like a stretch for me; curators grasping at connections that were tenuous at best. But then, the last room of the exhibition held the Brothel prints and etchings. As they say in the porn business, we had come to the “money shot.” On the walls were Degas’ monoprints depicting every aspect of life in a “maison clos”. For Picasso, these brothel prints by Degas represented what art should do and be about: ” the open-eyed expression of smelly, brutish, ugly, carnal, ‘pig-faced’ reality.” [Cowling, Picasso and Degas’s Maison Clos, from the catalog.]
Picasso’s prints of the same subject insert Degas into the scene as a sometimes artist, sometimes impotent and ineffective man, with his hands held behind his back, unable to partake in the scene in any way but with his eyes. It was as if the son of the prostitutes’ patron had sneaked into the brothel behind him only to mock and ridicule him. Once again, we see Picasso as the Creator and Destroyer.
If you missed the exhibition at the Clark, you can still see it at the Museu Picasso in Barcelona.