March 2, 2016
By Pat Johnson
While enraptured by Picasso’s Female Nude (I Love Eva), I was suddenly struck with a vision of the master standing before his finished work and appraising it. It was exhilarating.
When I was a youngster just learning about art, there was no better known “modern artist” than Picasso. He was in both Look and Life magazines; his exploits with women were scandalous. His paintings of monitors and women were frightening in their sexuality. As an art student in the ’70s, I stood motionless with others in front of his antiwar painting Guernica when it hung in MOMA. It gave visceral credence to the protests many students were participating in.
But standing just a few feet in front of that first painting in the exhibit currently at the Barnes Foundation, Picasso: the Great War, Experimentation and Change, I just felt the presence of a playful genius. Picasso always poked fun at writers and art historians who attempted to explain his art. To create was a compulsion, and he followed his creative whims.
In an article explaining his use of cubism, Picasso wrote: “When I paint a bowl, I want to show you that it is round, of course. But the general rhythm of the picture, its composition framework, may compel me to show the round shape as a square. When you come to think of it, I am probably a painter without style. ‘Style’ is often something that ties the artist down and makes him look at things in one particular way, the same technique, the same formulas, year after year, sometimes for a whole lifetime. You recognize him immediately, for he is always in the same suit, or a suit of the same cut. There are, of course, great painters who have a certain style. However, I always thrash about rather wildly. I am a bit of a tramp. You can see me at this moment, but I have already changed, I am already somewhere else. I can never be tied down, and that is why I have no style.”
The Barnes in collaboration with the Columbus Museum of Art has created a wonderful presentation of the artist’s work by focusing on a relatively narrow creative period of his life, 1912 through 1924, the years before and after World War I.
A short film attempts to explain his startling changes in style from avant-garde cubism and experimentation back to a more subdued type of classicism. According to the film, “Cubism Under Attack,” produced by the Barnes Foundation and Blue Visual Effects, during the war, cubism was viewed by the French as part of Germanic barbarism and was considered unpatriotic. Was this the reason Picasso (a Spaniard living in Paris) changed to a softer, recognizable, though different, classical style?
Or was it because he had fallen in love with the ballerina Olga Khokhlova while working on sets for the Ballets Russes?
In 1916, Picasso’s friend Jean Cocteau was working on the libretto for the ballet Parade and asked Picasso to design some of the costumes. He created three cubist constructions: a horse, an American manager and a French manager, and a more traditional clown costume for the Chinese conjurer. Reproductions of the cubist constructions are on loan from the Opera National de Bordeaux. These examples worn on the shoulders of performers towered over the other dancers. The Chinese conjurer costume is more traditional and is the only costume from the ballet that survived.
Also on display are Cocteau’s photographs taken earlier that same year of his avant garde friends on the streets and the cafes of Montparnasse. Besides Picasso there are artists Amedeo Modigliani, Moise Kisling, Manuel Ortiz de Zárate and Marie Vassilieff; writer Henri-Pierre Roché and poet Max Jacob; and the model Emilienne Pâquerette Geslot. It was on this day that Cocteau asked Picasso to create the costumes.
The black and white photographs are full of the joie de vivre of the raffish young artists.
When Parade premiered in Paris in May 1917, its strange movements, bizarre costumes and musical score that included a foghorn, gunshots and typewriter were too shocking for the public that booed and hissed at it.
Undaunted, Picasso spent over two years working for Ballets Russes and married Olga Khokhlova in 1918. Now, instead of hitting the café society and street life with his artist friends he was moving in the more rarified social circles of the ballet.
Although his artist friends would be satisfied with a cubist painting of Ham, Glass, Bottle of Vieux Marc, Paper, his style abruptly changed after his marriage, perhaps to be more acceptable to the masses.
The realistic portraits in pencil are lovely and simple; there are no superfluous lines. A pencil portrait of Olga in 1918 is quite tender. A self-portrait done the same year is also subdued. Perhaps it was love that softened his approach.
But Picasso would not completely abandon his cubist paintings, and elements of cubism appear in his classical paintings of women and men who seem to be made from Greek architecture—its columns and pediments.
Seated Woman painted in 1920 is a striking example of this new “clunky” classicism.
There is so much to be enjoyed in the Barnes Foundation’s Picasso exhibit. There are his early collages, a few paintings of his contemporaries and examples of his work on loan from collections around the nation and the world. By focusing on just a few years of this legendary, prolific artist, the Barnes has made his art and the man more accessible.
Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change is at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia through May 9.
The Barnes also has more Picasso works in its collection and on view in the main galleries. Dr. Albert C. Barnes amassed one of the world’s greatest collections of impressionist, post-impressionism and early modern paintings, represented by Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and major works by Vincent Van Gogh and Amedeo Modigliani.
He assembled these in small galleries to please his own aesthetic with objects of African sculpture, Pennsylvania Dutch furniture and wrought iron objects. It is a singular art experience.