February 9, 2016
By Emily Thomas
The Barnes Foundation’s latest exhibit, Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change, combines abstract designs and striking portraits—all while exploring Pablo Picasso’s dramatic shift in style during and after World War I.
The exhibit, a collaboration between the Barnes and the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio, opens Feb. 21 and runs until May 9. The Barnes will feature 50 of Picasso’s pieces, including watercolors, oil paintings and a handful of pieces created by Picasso’s contemporaries, like Henri Matisse and Diego Rivera.
The show aims to highlight Picasso’s sudden change in style, moving between cubism and more classical, reserved works. Although not a subject in any of his work, the war is seen as a possible influence of the dramatic shift.
“[Picasso] keeps this up for a good 10 years, going back and forth between fragmented forms and very whole, legible forms,” said Martha Lucy, a managing curator for the exhibition and a deputy director for education and public programs at the Barnes Foundation. “The show looks at this oscillation in his style and asks questions about it, like, ‘Why is he doing this, and does it have anything to do with the war?’”
“He never actually represents the war as a subject,” Lucy added. “But I think it’s still an important backdrop for understanding his work from this time, because he was affected by it. . . . A lot of his closest friends were sent to the front.”
The exhibit pulls pieces from around the world, including loans from the Musée Picasso in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as well as private collections spanning the United States and Europe.
The Barnes also organized a series of programs to run during the exhibit, helping viewers further understand the history and context of the pieces through lectures and classes held by local experts in European art.
“One of the goals [of the exhibit] is to expose people to this very strange and complicated. . . and probably one of the least understood. . . periods in Picasso’s career,” Lucy said. “I think that what he’s grappling with during this period, this breaking apart of form and going back to the classical mode, is something that he does on and off for the rest of his career. So it’s important because this is the beginning of an interesting set of contradictions that happens for the rest of his life.”
While addressing Picasso’s turbulent times, the exhibit also illuminates how the styles he uses—cubism and neoclassicism—though very different, actually compliment each other.
Dr. Gerald Silk, professor of modern and contemporary art at the Tyler School of Art, said the importance of the two styles working together can be seen in the ballet, Parade, an avant-garde production that Picasso designed the costumes and curtain for.
“[Picasso’s] curtain design is representational, with a dreamy, childlike classicism. . . when the curtain rises, the audience is shocked to see a more cubist backdrop and some figures dressed in cubistic costumes,” Silk said. “The poet and critic, Guillaume Apollinaire—Picasso’s close friend—called the ballet, ‘surreal,’ one of the first uses of that term.”
Four costumes from the production and sketches of the curtain design are included in the exhibit to show how Picasso used both styles in his work.
Lucy said the exhibit is a “nice compliment to the permanent collection,” as the Barnes has several early Picasso works of its own.
“The Barnes as a venue continues its more recent efforts to mount exhibitions with greater social and political content,” Silk said. “This Picasso show takes the Barnes, which has Picassos in its permanent collection, mostly from his pre-cubist period. . . in a bolder and illuminating direction.”
“It’s really exciting to have this group of work from all over the world together at one time in the city,” Lucy said. “I don’t know when the next time is that they’ll be here.”
Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this article, Martha Lucy was identified as a Barnes managing curator and assistant professor of art history at Drexel University. After this article was published, Lucy was appointed to a new position as managing curator and deputy director for education and public programs. The article now reflects Lucy’s current position.