Foreword from the Book

(Foreword by John Bentley Mays from the book Domestic Picasso by Eric Rosser.)

In a 1924 review of paintings he had not seen, Leo Stein, Gertrude’s brother, wrote: “Picasso refused his real job as not good enough for him, and the result has been a wilderness of foolery and waste.”

The “real job” Stein had in mind was Cubism, the staid, intellectually strenuous and respectable painting style in which Picasso briefly worked when he was bewitched by Cézanne and not being himself. By himself, I mean funny—raunchy and cruel and irreverent, crude, and, above all, funny in a very modern way, which was his way of being an artist in all but the darkest moments of his life before and after the Cubist episode. Leo Stein, and other starchy critics since Leo’s time, never forgave the artist for carrying on as the satirist he was, when not being a Cubist.

Such dismissal is a matter of taste, of course, but snobbery also has something to do with it.

People who don’t smile a lot when looking at Picasso’s work from the twentieth century’s late teens onward probably never enjoyed the pop cultural caricaturing that informs it. Nor do they, I imagine, much appreciate contemporary artists—John Currin, for example—who, like Picasso, are able to regard the great canvasses of the past with a thoroughly healthy mixture of impudence, distance and genuine piety, while also drawing ideas and strategies from the rich earth of modern cartooning. Indeed, someone who doesn’t get sight gags will never get Picasso. (Similarly, a certain swath of twenty-first century painting is perhaps best understood by those acquainted with the animated television fantasy, Xavier: Renegade Angel.)

During the course of his close, year-long study of Picasso’s career and art, Eric Rosser discovered the artist who matters most to him (and to many others, if not to Leo Stein): less the earnest Cubist than the exuberantly gifted painter attentively gazing, Janus like, at the high art of past ages and the popular visual culture—advertisements, magazine illustrations, cartoons—of his own day. Rosser’s Domestic Picasso series is the record of this discovery, and an application to Picasso’s art of the same blend of homage and pointed satirical humour that Picasso himself applied to numerous paintings in the Western tradition.

The Domestic Picasso canvases are funny, and they are supposed to be. Like gag cartoons, they show us the impossible—the paintings Picasso might have made, that is, had he ever washed a window, or put up drapes, or changed a diaper, or done any of the other household chores he routinely and forever assigned to his wives, girlfriends or servants.

Rosser’s satire could surely have been corrosive, but it’s not. Instead of mounting the kind of diatribe that might have endeared him to Picasso’s hostile critics, Rosser has given credit where it’s due— Picasso was, after all is said and done, a maker of wonderful and unforgettable images, some of which are recalled here—and portrayed the artist, going about his housework, as dutiful and serious. Though I wouldn’t know from personal experience, Picasso may have missed out on some valuable, fulfilling life-lessons by never finding himself in the everyday situations that Eric Rosser, with a generous spirit, has put him in.