Picture this: there’s an artist (painter/actor/musician/dancer) you admire and one day you hear about less savory details of their private life. Does it change your opinion of their work? Do you dismiss the information as rumor started by a rival? Are you Machiavellian and believe the end justifies the means, no matter what lives are destroyed in the name of great art?
These are a few of the questions triggered by My Name is Pablo Picasso, directed by Elaine Meder-Wilgus, with Arden Moscati as Picasso, Julia Albertson as Fernande, and Michael P. Bernosky as the Old Man. Even though the play was written by Mary Gage in 1979, its topic and approach are perfect for the Capital Fringe.
Set in 1907, My Name opens with Fernande posing for Picasso. She is naked and he is working feverishly and frustrated. The studio contains a ragged rug, cheap furniture in various states of disrepair, and before long Fernande is complaining about life as an artist’s model: tired of posing and not having money for tea or sugar. Picasso throws fuel on the fire of their argument, angry that she is not more accommodating and also furious that she is not interested in marrying. They are a study in dysfunction: stubborn, whiney, self-serving, but also deeply committed, even dependent on the other. Just as their tension and bitterness become like nails on a chalkboard, the Old Man enters.
Not wanting to give too much away, I will mention some highlights and questions. I figured out who the Old Man could represent just before the character confirmed his identity. Knowing a little about Picasso’s life helps, but is not at all required. Some of the lines spoken by the characters motivated me to double check details of his the artist’s life. Yes, this is his quote: “There’s nothing so similar to one poodle dog as another poodle dog, and that goes for women, too.”
The show inspired me to think about historical conditions that produce certain artists, and at the same I was intrigued by the play’s timelessness.
Bernosky is terrific as the Old Man. When he takes on the role of a fortuneteller, making predictions about the future for Picasso and Fernande, he mentions details they do not want to hear. How similar are their reactions to what we do today? When we hear information we don’t want to know, do we insult the messenger rather than consider their words?
Though set a century ago, My Name tackles topics that continue to be relevant.
We are living in a city known for massive museums and world-class collections: who decided the value of these pieces? What sacrifices did artists make to create these works? How are collectors, dealers, critics, and audiences complicit in these decisions?
How do we explain this conundrum of collecting? If we live in a society that determines the value of an artwork by its price tag, then some of the paintings in DC museums are not the best artistically, but rather “the ones that appeal the most to the rich.”
My Name also raises crucial questions about artistic innovation, particularly how do we encounter the new? Hanging on the wall throughout the show is “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” which was mocked by Picasso’s contemporaries Matisse and Braque. Picasso is passionately committed to this new direction: not painting beautifully. Fernande wishes he would “go back to the old way in order to make money.” Picasso insists: “I paint for myself and no one else.”
Is this the essential ingredient for every creative innovator? How does an artist stay committed to an idea in spite of rejection and ridicule? Is fame the balm that soothes these sores? My Name has a fascinating and thought-provoking answer.
My Name is Pablo Picasso has 4 more performances in the Redrum – Fort Fringe, 607 New York Avenue, Washington, DC.