… Because he doesn’t let nature take him by surprise, but always has to take it by surprise, he doesn’t allow the total experience of the subject in all its richness to flood in and carry him along with it.
This is from ‘Picasso I’ (1960) in About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-96 by David Sylvester (1996):
There is a tendency in modern art towards the isolation of one aesthetic quality or another, say, linear tension, luminosity, weight or weightlessness or both of them contrasted, compositional geometry, contrasts of texture, the sense of movement, the flatness-depth duality. A modern work will often, rather than embrace and reconcile several such qualities, be concentrated towards possessing one or two of them to an extreme degree.
[line break added] The quality isolated doesn’t merely acquire an especial intensity; it is as it were placed there on exhibition, it is exposed. For it is not predicated of something but, rather, offered for our contemplation as if it were itself a thing. A picture is not about, say, the weight of the dead Christ but about weight, not about the surging movement of a Bacchanalian revel but surging movement.
Picasso’s position among modern artists is connected with his genius for isolating particular aesthetic qualities with an unequaled ruthlessness and brilliance, and for doing it to an unequalled range and diversity of qualities. He does it, moreover, with no fear at all of being obvious [i.e. he doesn’t care that it is obvious].
[ … ]
Picasso’s compulsion to isolate particular aesthetic qualities is analogous to his habit of breaking down the human figure into fragments and building some of them up into a new construction within which the fragments retain their separate identities. He breaks down art into its several elements and exhibits them separately.
… It is because the pattern of his career in its entirety is so thrilling that he is magnified by an exhibition on the colossal scale of the Tate’s, where most artists would be diminished by its size. One walks about in these rooms in a state of amazement, vastly excited, and vastly entertained.
But if one can bear to drag oneself away to take a look at Bonnard’s La Table [see below] and Matisse’s portrait of Derain downstairs and then return to the Picassos, they now look curiously inert. One had imagined under the spell of Picasso seen whole, that modern painting just couldn’t be better than this: one had forgotten how much an individual great modern painting could do, that it can offer a dimension beyond Picasso’s scope (as one forgets when watching a first-rate film that the theater can offer a further dimension than this).
[line break added] A dimension is missing as the result of a too urgent and all-embracing compulsion to isolate particular qualities. Picasso seems to decide what it is that he wants to abstract from his subject, and then to shut his eyes and mind to it until he has given form to his decision and can make a fresh start on something else. Not necessarily on a different canvas, perhaps only on a different image, but on a different image. The film The Picasso Mystery is illuminating about this.
[line break added] It shows the myriad transformations undergone by a big painting of a beach scene, and each transformation is a change of image, never, as with the successive states that were photographed of paintings by Matisse, a further stage in the evolution of an image. The transformations are like those in the pattern seen in a kaleidoscope, forever forming and re-forming as it is shaken up, but only changing, never growing, whereas transformations in Matisse belong to a process of growth.
[line break added] There is no growth because each change cancels rather than qualifies what was there before: Picasso doesn’t allow the experience of a subject over a period of time, with every alteration of heart and mind and perception that occurs, to accrete in a single painting in which every successive layer of the experience is somehow still active. Because he doesn’t let nature take him by surprise, but always has to take it by surprise, he doesn’t allow the total experience of the subject in all its richness to flood in and carry him along with it.
[line break added] He maintains his omnipotence by keeping his separate experiences of the subject in separate compartments. The dialectical process is excluded by which a stage negates what has gone before, which is again negated and so forth, so that at the end of a series of contradictions [by other artists who do] we are left with a distillation of the sustained experience.
Pierre Bonnard, La Table, 1925
… The greatest paintings don’t need the context of a great one-man exhibition.