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A painter under the influence

The myth that Picasso sprang forth as a fully formed genius is neatly undermined by the National Gal

At 16, Pablo Picasso was already trying on other artists for size. We first encounter his big black eyes here from under a periwig; he has been at the dressing-up box and come back as a Goya. It’s an unnerving self-portrait for a teenager, the face already apparently thick with the life that was to come: full of mortal fears, hard-bitten, raging against the dying of the light before it has had a chance to burn. Some of the artist’s biographers have claimed that, by the time he made this portrait, Picasso was a habitual visitor to the brothels of Madrid. And his sexual promiscuity was always matched by his artistic philandering – for every new mistress, there was, as this show at the National Gallery in London about his influences demonstrates, also an Old Master.

To begin with, Picasso wanted to paint himself into the classical Spanish tradition. Not long after his bewigged Goya fancy dress, he started to copy El Greco, still considered beyond the pale by the purists. Picasso and his friend Francisco Bernareggi sat in the Prado, working their way under the skin and into El Greco’s ghostly skulls. They sent the results to Picasso’s father, Don José Ruiz y Blasco, a professor at the school of fine arts in Barcelona. “All was well so long as we worked on Velázquez, Goya and the Venetians,” Bernareggi recalled, “but the day we decided to do a copy of El Greco, his reaction was: ‘You’re taking the wrong path.’ That was in 1897, when El Greco was considered a menace.”

Picasso relished that menace. He liked to believe that in becoming an artist he had destroyed his father’s career, and later famously claimed that when Don José saw his son’s skill as a boy he “gave me his paints and his brushes and never went back to painting”. The claim is not true, at least in the literal sense, but it supported Picasso’s Oedipal sense of himself – Freud was very much in the air; having stolen his father’s lifeblood, the prodigy signed his paintings with his mother’s name, Doña Maria Picasso y López.

One way of looking at this exhibition is as a history of Picasso’s subsequent obsessive search for paternal figures to appropriate and destroy. He eclipsed the modest talent of his own father and then spent a career measuring himself against more oppressive pretenders. As his work developed, he eyed up painters he would eventually have to take on, a bull in art history’s china shop. As early as 1929, he wrote a note on the back of an envelope: “When I see Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe I say to myself: trouble for later on.” It was not until 30 years later that he felt Manet could be confronted. Then, between the ages of 78 and 81, Picasso did little else but take apart Manet’s iconic picnic, piece by piece. He made cardboard cut-outs of the figures – in a glass case at the London exhibition – to see what forces held them together, and made a hundred variations of the picture, each more a Picasso than the last, as if he wanted to go back and write his name on the modern just as it began.

Yet it was not just modernism that Picasso wanted for himself. Immediately after the Liberation, Picasso took his lover Françoise Gilot to the Louvre to look at Delacroix’s Women of Algiers. “That bastard,” he said of Delacroix, as if of a rival. “He’s really good.” A decade later he became obsessed with the idea that the French painter had “already met” another of Picasso’s muses, Jacqueline Roque – she bore an uncanny resemblance to one of the Algerian women. Picasso wasn’t having it. In the extraordinary series of canvases displayed here, he clearly felt he had to find and perhaps destroy the magic of that original. He paints versions of Jacqueline into the picture and adds priapic shorthand references to himself, a marking out of territory.

His rivalries were as often played out as comedy. Just as Picasso was a lover of prostitutes, so he was a connoisseur of the painting of prostitutes. He admired Degas (“my contemporary”) for two things, his pen-and-ink sketches and his whores: “You could smell them.” An etching of his own here has Degas looking on from a portrait on the wall at a scene in a brothel, a classic Picasso tangle of tits and ass, while the artist himself inhabits the shadows with his dark stare and great hairy hand. He is alive and Degas is dead, the etching says. He can do whatever he wants.

In later life, Picasso was in the habit of projecting on to one wall of his studio the work of the artist who was most in his head at any one time. He liked to have them there as a goad to his own ambition, a larger-than-life reminder of what he was up against. Van Gogh and Rembrandt were the most frequent visitors to his wall (Picasso did not do things by halves). You sense in this habit not only his insatiable need for competition – as if Matisse wasn’t enough – but also his insecurity about his own place in the canon. Not only did he want to be Picasso, he wanted to be everyone else that mattered, too. His rendering of himself as Van Gogh is a truly terrifying proposition, the knackered straw hat, the lolling tongue, the mangled ear, the starry tattoo and the eyes, of course: red, black, yellow and green.

When a version of this exhibition was on at the Louvre, the inspirations for Picasso’s paintings were displayed alongside the results. Here, you are invited either to hold the original for comparison in your mind, or, in a few cases, head off into the permanent collection to track it down. It feels half-cocked as a result. On the one hand, you are being asked to contrast; on the other, it is not quite clear where this guessing game will lead you. The obvious homages are singular enough, but often the influences are a stretch at best. All great paintings refer to other great paintings, and Picasso was not the first artist to be aware that he could not paint a line that had not been painted before.

One of the pictures that makes you take a step back here is the Nude with Joined Hands of 1906. It’s a glory of one of the happier periods of Picasso’s life; he is 25, just beginning to feel all the things he might be capable of. A simple golden figure steps out from a background of perfect rose. It is maybe enough to know that this was the high point of Picasso’s summer of love with Fernande Olivier in the Pyrenees, rather than to think how it might relate to Gauguin’s Pacific island statues or Cézanne’s very stately portrait of his wife with her hands in her lap.

What the approach of the exhibition does give the lie to, however, is the persistent mythology that Picasso sprang forth as a genius fully formed. There are a good many false starts here – and he was as honest about his failures as his successes. It is hard to look at his versions of the Manet, for example, or at his monochrome Las Meninas of Velázquez, and not want to look harder at the originals. The sense you come away with is that, although he never took a step back from challenging the past, he never emerged unscathed. It’s like Rocky, or, better still, Raging Bull: it’s the sheer persistence that gets you in the end. Picasso got knocked down, but he got back up again.

“Picasso: Challenging the Past” is at the National Gallery, London WC2, until 7 June. For more details visit:

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Overload

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.