The Philadelphia Inquirer
February 22, 2016
By Thomas Hine
The title of the Barnes Foundation's new exhibition, Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation, and Change, is filled with portent.
It names the most consequential artist of the 20th century and the deadly, depressing, disillusioning event—usually called World War I nowadays—that resolved little politically but that is conventionally seen as a turning point in Western culture.
World War I happened a century ago, and nobody really remembers it now, though we are still dealing with its consequences in Iraq, among other unlikely places. We look to art and literature—to the terrifying etchings by Otto Dix showing the horrors of trench warfare and poison gas, or to the fragmented poetry of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, surveying the shards of a botched civilization.
What we don't usually do is look at Picasso, and for good reason.
None of his art makes any direct reference to the war, and you have to reach pretty far to find any indirect references. The war began when he was 32; as a Spanish national, he did not have to fight, and unlike others in his position, he did not become involved in ambulance brigades or other wartime service.
“Picasso almost never addressed World War I as an artistic subject,” the exhibition tells us in its introductory text panel. “Why then,” you may wonder, “am I at a show about Picasso and World War I—a subject that seems not to exist?”
This engaging exhibition, organized by the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio and the Barnes, and curated by Simonetta Fraquelli, does not try too hard to answer the question. Its goal is to show some of Picasso's work during a decade—1914–24—that is less studied than some others. It's worth seeing despite the broken promise of its title.
The show is essentially an attempt to provide a context for a key work from the Columbus Museum, Still Life with Compote and Glass (1914–15), a very strange and playful painting that might have signaled the beginning of Picasso's polka-dot period. With its clashing shards of pattern, it looks like a cubist still life that has been invaded by a linoleum catalog. It is Picasso at his most ingratiating, giving not a hint of the carnage happening not too far away.
By including several works that relate to this painting, the show presents a somewhat more decorative, ebullient, and even humorous Picasso than we are used to seeing. He is particularly interested in pattern and texture, so he paints cubist compositions that show us bits of wood paneling, marble wainscoting, and tweed. While others, in the aftermath of the war, sought to purge environments of decoration, Picasso during the war played with and perhaps celebrated signs of bourgeois comfort.
As a film in the exhibition shows, cubism, which Picasso had invented along with the French artist Georges Braque during the first decade of the century, was under attack in wartime France. It was shown in cartoons and discussed in the media as though it were a German invention whose purpose was to destroy the classic beauty of France. You can see how people living in a world that seemed to be coming apart would react against an art that sets out to take the world apart.
You could, I suppose, interpret the bits of decor that Picasso incorporated into his canvases as ruins, but that would be wrongheaded. These are ebullient works that celebrate ordinary comforts, not manifestos or laments. Unlike the pioneering cubist works, they are relaxed and a bit eclectic, sometimes mixing in other styles and approaches on the same canvas.
Also during this period, Picasso began to do beautiful portrait drawings in pencil, in the refined French tradition of Jean-August-Dominique Ingres, several of which are in the show. Then, after a trip to Italy, Picasso began doing works in his version of Greco-Roman traditions. After the war, he did paintings of large and sensuous, but maternal, women with grotesquely oversize hands and feet. The wall text tells us these were inspired by the works of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, though I see Michelangelo, too. These seem somehow to be figures of comfort and healing after the war.
Picasso's multiple approaches - some of which were backward-looking - worried modernists who believed art must always progress. They feared Picasso was backsliding, or surrendering to the slanders against cubism. Still, he did not abandon cubism; it remained one important way in which he saw and depicted the world.
This was also the moment when Picasso became involved with ballet, working closely with dancer-choreographer Léonide Massine, composer Erik Satie, and poet-artist Jean Cocteau on the 1917 ballet Parade.
Picasso created three oversize works of ambulatory sculpture: a Frenchman with a massive pipe stuck in his mouth and a walking staff like a large match, an American with a skyscraper growing out of his shoulder, and a horse that is a comic predecessor of the one in Picasso's great antiwar painting, Guernica (1937).
There are reproductions of these in the show, along with the sole surviving original costume, the one Massine wore in his role as the Chinese conjurer. It includes a wonderful hat, shaped a bit like a flame but mostly black. There are also some great documentary photographs, including one showing Picasso and his assistants stopping for a break, sprawled across the vast curtain they are painting.
Parade was the reason for Picasso's sojourn in Italy, and it was also where he met his future wife, ballerina Olga Khokhlova, of which there are several portraits in the show. They are stylistically varied, but none is the kind of cubist portrait we see earlier of a lover's body reduced to squares, triangles, and semicircles.
Picasso seems, overall, to have come through the war with little personal or professional loss. We don't really know, though, whether his art was shaped by the war, and if so, how. What this exhibition shows us is the artist finding ever more ways to be Picasso.