Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change review

Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change review

The Wall Street Journal
February 24, 2016
By Karen Wilkin

PHILADELPHIA—One interpretation of Pablo Picasso's history holds that whenever he acquired a new female companion, he changed residences, moving from the squalid Bateau Lavoir of his early years in Paris to luxurious apartments, starting in the 1920s, and finally to the country châteaux of his last decades. According to this account, the presence of a new woman in Picasso's life also provoked alterations in his conception of what a painting could be, from hyper-sensitive figuration to brutal near-abstraction, and a lot in between.

This theory is debatable, but it's obvious that Picasso changed his approach to making art many times over his long life, often dramatically. In the years just before, during and after World War I, for example, he shifted from the geometric austerity and formal aggression of synthetic cubism to the suave elegance of neo-classicism and back again, sometimes working in these apparently antithetical modes more or less simultaneously. The thought-provoking exhibition Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change, at the Barnes Foundation, organized in collaboration with the Columbus Museum of Art, attempts to find reasons for these swings by examining the strikingly diverse works Picasso made between 1912 and 1924 in relation to those problematic times.

The installation begins with a group of muscular still lifes, dating from 1912 to 1914, testimony to how Picasso dissected forms into overlapping planes during the early years of cubism and then, just before the start of World War I, reconstituted them as interlocking, often richly textured or patterned shapes. Picasso's friend and colleague Georges Braque, an equal partner in the cubist adventure, invented collage in 1912—Picasso quickly embraced the technique—and many of these paintings include not only the occasional pasted element but also passages that imitate wood grain and wallpaper, playful references to collage's cut-out applications translated back into paint.

A delicious 1914 painting, from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, apparently shows a scrap of paper with a drawing of a “textbook” cubist fractured pipe and sheets of music. Loosely poised on a spotted background, the scrap casts a shadow. Everything is contained in a fictive traditional frame, labeled “Picasso.” The painting is a witty dialogue between representation and rejection of representation, but in the context of the show we're meant to concentrate on the illusionistic elements as evidence of Picasso's loss of faith in cubism and his renewed interest in traditional aesthetic values. This is attributed, in part, to his dislike of the efforts of the “Salon Cubists,” artists such as Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes, who devised a tamer version of Picasso and Braque's radical reinvention of space. But, as a film in the next gallery tells us, there were political reasons as well.

With the outbreak of World War I, we learn, cubism was increasingly viewed not just as aesthetically aberrant, but also as contrary to French cultural values. Spelled with a Germanic “K” in political cartoons, %ldquo;kubism” was equated with German barbarism, in contrast to work in the spirit of such truly French artists as the classicists Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Picasso's 1915 Ingres-like drawing of the poet-painter-critic Max Jacob, which startled those who knew him as an anti-traditionalist, is presented as a sign of the artist's awareness of these ideas. Was working in a neo-classical mode Picasso's way of declaring his patriotism? It seems pretty trivial, since as a national of neutral Spain he was exempt from fighting, while his friends, most notably Braque and the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, took part in combat and were badly wounded.

Overtly cubist works, some with illusionistic elements, from the late teens and early 1920s are presented along with classically inflected works—portraits of Olga Khokhlova, the Ballets Russes dancer whom Picasso married, made around 1917 and 1918, at the start of their relationship, and robust “goddesses” from the 1920s. Together, they are cited as evidence of Picasso's alternation between breaking things apart and reconstructing them.

The most spectacular demonstration of these ideas is a gallery devoted to Parade, the ballet choreographed by Léonide Massine to music by Erik Satie and presented in 1917 by Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes with sets and costumes by Picasso. The Cubist constructions worn by the ballet's “French Manager” and “American Manager,” along with more conventional costumes worn by other characters, and the famous drop curtain, with its Pegasus, illustrate the coexistence of the two strains. Some costumes are reconstructions made for a modern performance of Parade (seen on video), while others are documented by reproduction prints of vintage photographs; the one original costume to have survived is also on view.

Works by Picasso's colleagues and period photographs of the artist and his friends enrich the mix, enhancing the fine selection of works by the Spanish virtuoso himself. Even if we fail to be wholly convinced by the thesis of Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change, we can see a lot of good art.

Ms. Wilkin is an independent curator and critic.