The aim of this presentation is to question the impact of identity issues, in early 20th-France, on the critical reception of Pablo Picasso. It is based mainly on one particular case of critical reception: the book by the art critic Wilhelm Uhde entitled Picasso et la tradition française, published in 1928.
Wilhelm Uhde’s book develops a reading of contemporary art in keeping with a critical stance that was widely shared at that time, namely that all artistic output is tied to the “character” of its maker. Thus, Pablo Picasso above all remained a Spanish painter and his work should be interpreted in that vein: “mystical”, “sombre”, “tormented”, arising from the “agonising depths of the soul”. But, contrary to what other art critics like Camille Mauclair endorsed at the time, Uhde’s analysis does not strictly set the Spanish “character” of Pablo Picasso against the French pictorial tradition, which he describes, by contrast, as “bright” and “joyful”. For Uhde, it was instead a matter of affirming that art also stems from artistic complementarities of the likes of the Picasso-Braque pairing, which he presents as a meeting of two complementary entities: that of Picasso’s “Gothic sentiment” and that of Braque’s “Latin genius”. This unique “Gothic-Latin” analysis of Cubism did not leave its mark on history. However, the importance that art critics and historians place on such identity-related considerations has permeated artistic debates for a long time.
We will broaden our approach by taking other examples of critical reception that have contributed to putting across this reductive image of Pablo Picasso’s oeuvre. The collective book entitled Les Problèmes de la peinture published in 1945, some 15 years after Wilhelm Uhde’s book, is one such example. Presented as a 20th-century “genius”, Pablo Picasso figures in the chapter dedicated to the “directors of consciences”, alongside the French artists Matisse, Bonnard, Braque and Rouault. However, in the few pages devoted to Picasso, the critic Maurice Morel just about ventures to describe the oeuvre shaped by the artist’s origins; an artist “born in the country of El Cid and Don Quixote”, a “land of ash and fire” where the spirit willingly succumbs “to hallucination and ecstasy”.
The comparison of these two books, one from 1928 and the other from 1945, will enable us to look into the evolution and/or durability of the stances taken by between-the-wars French art criticism towards Pablo Picasso’s work.