March 6, 2016
By Jane Holahan
PHILADELPHIA — Of all the great artists of the 20th century, none was more experimental and innovative than Pablo Picasso.
In his long and prolific life, Picasso (1881–1973) helped to profoundly change the art world and send it in many directions.
The Barnes Foundation is zeroing in on the years 1912 to 1924 in its new exhibit, Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change, which runs through May 9.
The exhibit features 50 works by Picasso from this period, including figurative drawings and paintings as well as cubist and other abstract work that show the evolution of styles and how they came together to create signature works of the great artist.
Several works by Picasso’s contemporaries, including Henri Matisse and Georges Braque, are also included.
Costumes Picasso created for the avant-garde ballet, Parade, are on display and one room features 29 photographs taken by Jean Cocteau of Picasso and friends between Aug. 10 and Aug. 12, 1916.
In the period the exhibit is exploring, Picasso goes from being an unknown struggling artist to a successful one who is seen as a leader of the avant-garde and a champion of cubism, a movement he founded with George Braque.
In January 1915, six months into World War I, Picasso created a series of conservative line drawings of his friend, the poet Max Jacob.
This shift to the representational shocked and angered many of the avant-garde artists who had followed Picasso into the world of cubism.
Was he turning his back on cubism? On abstraction? On the avant-garde? Was he responding to a growing idea in France that cubism was a German art form and anti-French?
“People in France were calling cubism foreign and barbaric,” says Martha Lucy, the managing curator for the show and the deputy director for education and public programs for the Barnes Foundation. (The curator of the exhibit, Simonetta Fraquelli, is out of the country.)
“This is a ridiculous idea because cubism was developed in France,” Lucy says.
French classicism became the “patriotic” art of the day.
Picasso never addressed the war in his work and never fought. (His native Spain remained neutral during the war, so he never had to serve.) But a number of his artist friends were sent to war.
Was there comfort in classical French drawing and painting? Or was Picasso’s restless mind bringing together contrary styles and finding a way to unite them?
Picasso and Braque in 1907 had begun working in cubism—the concept of taking a figure apart, exploring it and putting it back together. It was ridiculed at first, but eight years later the movement was becoming more mainstream.
And it was evolving.
“Earlier cubism is really fragmented, all browns and grays and blacks,” Lucy says. “Picasso is changing it up. He’s bringing in more color, using heavier, more solid forms. It is easier to make out subjects. His cubism is becoming more tactile.”
During this period, Picasso has not forsaken cubism, but expanded it and changed it. His exploration of figurative work obviously influenced this abstract work.
The exhibit offers an entry into how Picasso’s artistic mind worked. He would not be cowed by those who criticized his conservative work; he would find elements in it to use in the evolution of his more radical work.
His 1920 oil on canvas, Studies, might sum up the exhibit perfectly. Picasso compartmentalizes classical scenes with abstract ones, finding elements to tie together.
In addition to the drawings and paintings in the exhibit, reproductions of the wild costumes Picasso created for the 1916 ballet Parade are on display, along with a huge photograph of the curtain he painted for it. This marks Picasso’s first project for the theater.
The ballet, in which entertainers try to bring people into the circus tent, was performed by Sergei Diaghilev’s dance company Ballet Russes, the toast of avant-garde Paris. Jean Cocteau wrote the libretto, Leonide Massine did the choreography—though it is hard to see how people could move in the costumes—and Erik Satie wrote the score, which called for a foghorn, typewriters and a pistol shot.
It was during a walk around Montparnasse that Cocteau asked Picasso to design the costumes. That is also when Cocteau took the photographs.
It’s fascinating to see his snapshots of those few days in August 1916. One of the other people in the photos is Max Jacob, the man who posed for those traditional drawings, which set Picasso in new directions.
The exhibit is a partnership between the Barnes and the Columbus (Ohio) Museum of Art, where it will travel to next.