March 3, 2016
By Fred Adelson
Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) was only 5 feet, 4 inches tall.
Yet he is a giant of the art world whose creative talent and prolific career dominated much of the 20th century. His celebrated works are central to any discussion of modern art and prominently displayed in museums worldwide.
On the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the renowned Barnes collection includes an astonishing 46 works by Picasso (22 canvases, 23 works on paper, and a tapestry) in addition to its incomparable holdings of impressionist and post-impressionist art. In fact, one of Dr. Albert Barnes’s initial purchases was the painting of a seated woman holding a cigarette (Room 10) dating to 1901 by the young Spanish artist, who was then new to the Parisian art scene.
So it is understandable the Barnes has organized Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change, spanning an artistically pivotal and consequential period from 1912, the year Dr. Barnes made his first foundational purchases, to 1924.
Incidentally, this “small but focused” exhibit deals with the same 12-year period that has been dramatically portrayed over the six seasons of Downton Abbey.
This visually engaging show of just over 50 works has been guest-curated by Simonetta Fraquelli, an independent art historian who specializes in early 20th-century European art.
With significant loans from American and European public and private collections, it will remain on view at the Barnes campus in Philadelphia through May 9 and then will travel to the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio.
War to End All Wars
Although the exhibit encompasses the tumultuous time of World War I (1914 to 1918) and coincides with the centennial of the Battle of the Somme, the most famous and brutal struggle of the Great War, no military scenes or images of soldiers are displayed. Unlike many of his French counterparts, Picasso was not a combatant, serving the art front instead of the war front. He later acknowledged, “I have not painted the war because I am not that kind of painter.”
To provide a contextual dollop, Fraquelli has included a representative selection by some of Picasso’s friends and contemporaries, including Amedeo Modigliani, Diego Rivera and Henri Matisse, who also were working in Paris and trying to gain recognition around the mid-1910s.
Above all, do not miss the short but very enlightening video, “Cubism Under Attack,” which is continuously projected in its own intimate viewing space. As anti-German sentiment erupted in France during the war, the progressive and revolutionary style of Cubism was curiously considered an “attack on French values,” the video explains.
There is also a series of 29 documentary photographs taken by Jean Cocteau, the young poet who introduced himself to Picasso and aspired “to establish more serious creative credentials and to expand his influence.” Like a paparazzo, Cocteau voyeuristically stalked the artist and his avant-garde circle in the Left Bank neighborhood of Montparnasse on Aug. 12, 1916; they appear rather carefree as they enjoy Parisian life, comfortably removed from the battlefield.
As a result of his new friendship with Cocteau, Picasso became involved with the Ballets Russes, an innovatively unique company founded by Sergei Diaghilev. The artist worked on Parade with its music by Erik Satie, choreography by Leonide Massine, and libretto by Cocteau; it is a time of impressive collaborative creativity. Picasso designed the stage curtain and the production’s elaborately imaginative costumes (the original 1917 silk satin costume for the Chinese Conjuror is on display along with reproductions of three others that he had created for this unique multi-media ballet).
Through his association with the Ballets Russes, Picasso met and fell in love with Olga Kokhlova, the ballerina who would become his first wife. As part of the Parade team, the artist traveled to Italy and visited Naples and Pompeii, observing the antiquities of ancient Rome that bolstered his fascination for classicism. He also attended a performance by Kokhlova in Florence, giving him an opportunity to see significant examples of Renaissance art, especially the work of Michelangelo.
Love and Marriage
In June 1918, Picasso married the dancer, and three years later Olga gave birth to their son, Paulo. The artist experienced a mostly conventional domestic life orchestrated by Madame Picasso, even spending summers at fashionable resorts. Though later separated from Picasso, Olga remained his wife until her death in 1955.
On display are several exquisitely drawn naturalistic portraits of Olga, which the curator feels underscore the subject’s bourgeois background. Unlike the cubist images he created of his former mistresses, Picasso consistently used a more traditional, representational style when depicting his wife.
“High Priest of Cubism”
By 1912, Picasso already had pioneered cubism and its fragmented pictorial vocabulary, which dramatically changed the course of Western painting. In conversation at a recent preview of the exhibit, Fraquelli referred to Picasso as “the high priest of Cubism.”
Walking through the gallery, the curator said, “Here are some of the most multifaceted works of his career,” and stopped at Still Life with Compote and Glass, which “inspired the present exploration of the artist’s work.” She described it as “the culmination of cubist experimentation” and talked about how he presented the faceted tabletop forms that are typically characteristic of cubism alongside naturalistic details such as the illusionistic molding on the left.
Fraquelli strongly maintains that Picasso had “a protean nature to reinvent himself, taking from others and making it his own.” In an essay of the exhibit’s accompanying catalog, she wrote, “After seven years of developing and refining the revolutionary visual language of Cubism, Picasso began to introduce elements of naturalism in his art.” When the artist surprisingly showed his virtuosic realist pencil drawings of friends, like the exquisite portrait of Max Jacob dating from 1915, a shocked and startled critic even questioned, “Which is the true Picasso?”
The Natural and Abstract
The subject of the exhibition is precisely this duality: the pictorial vocabulary of cubism (its analytic phase with fragmented geometric forms and reductive color or what followed as its synthetic phase with its imagery of actual collaged elements or a collage-like decorative patterning) and the deliberate reintroduction of naturalism that seemed at odds with what he innovatively pioneered.
“Abstraction and naturalism are not antithetical,” Fraquelli emphasized. “Neoclassicism and cubism are two sides of the same coin,” she added.
For one-stop shopping, a work like Studies from 1920 demonstrates how Picasso playfully paints both cubist still-life forms and solidly monumental, classical body parts on the same canvas. The exhibit presents plenty of visual evidence for the artist’s shifting approaches, but it doesn’t provide answers for this deliberate oscillation.
It is quite compelling to see his facile success in handling both cubist and classical modes. Indeed, for anyone who might have doubted Picasso’s draftsmanship, many works in this show clearly reveal his striking representational skills. He was able to channel Michelangelo as well as the academic tradition of French masters, like Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres, whose line drawings he emulated.
Fraquelli believes Picasso was “self-aware of his role in the history of art and was situating himself in the moment, explaining why he so precisely dated his work.”
Though only in his 30s, the artist was already working hard to establish a legacy.
Picasso is an artist of boundless energy and talent who cannot be defined by any single artistic point of view.
He unquestionably added to the stylistic buffet of the 20th century, while he regularly helped himself to its spread.
Picasso admitted: “I do not believe I have used radically different elements in the different manners I have used in painting. If the subjects I have wanted to express have suggested different ways of expression, I have never hesitated to adopt them.”