Published: March 1, 2011
Pablo Picasso, the most powerful, innovative and influential artist of the Twentieth Century, is impossible to classify. Ambitious and inquisitive, he constantly sought to reinvent himself, searching for new sources of inspiration, both from works of the past and the modern age. He was involved in almost every artistic movement of his time.
Over the course of a prolific career, Picasso (1881‱973) adapted various means of expression to suit his diverse vision and to avoid being constrained by any single motif or movement. In exploring different theories and techniques, he was inspired by Classicism, Surrealism, African art and Cubism, which he helped devise. He created a remarkable 50,000 works in varied artistic mediums.
In recent decades, the public’s appetite for Picasso has been insatiable. Exhibitions of his works guarantee long lines and record crowds at museums around the world. This is certainly true of the United States, where it seems every aspect of the master’s career has been covered in at least one and often several shows.
What is often missing, however, are exhibitions that offer a satisfying overview of Picasso’s eight-decade career. “Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musee National Picasso, Paris,” on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) through May 15, makes a strong bid to fill that void. Co-organized by the VMFA and the Picasso Museum, and co-curated by Anne Baldessari, the Picasso Museum’s chairman and chief curator of collections, and John Ravenal, VMFA’s curator of Modern and contemporary art, it is drawn from the world’s largest and most significant repository of the artist’s work. The 176 works in all media were produced during every artistic period of Picasso’s career.
The art is from Picasso’s personal collection that was passed on by his heirs to the French state in lieu of estate taxes, and are on an international tour during renovation of the Picasso Museum.
With justification, VMFA touts this as “the most important exhibition in its history.” The display, after all, coincides with VMFA’s 75th anniversary, the realization of an awesome expansion of the museum’s facilities, and it constitutes a comprehensive survey of Picasso’s oeuvre.
Born in Malaga, Spain, son of an artist, Picasso, a child prodigy, started his formal art education at 13. Traveling to Paris at 19, he attended the Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair), where his large academic painting “Last Moments” was exhibited. Immersing himself in the avant-garde art world of the French capital, he was exposed to Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Symbolism. He especially admired the work of Vincent van Gogh and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Picasso promptly abandoned his academic manner and began to experiment with various forms of personal expression.
The outset of his career was defined by the suicide of his close friend, Carlos Casagmegas, whom he immortalized in the sobering “The Death of Casagmegas,” 1901. That prompted Picasso’s Blue Period, comprising somber paintings in blues and greens of poor and sick people, outcasts of society like “Celestina (The Woman with One-Eye),” of 1904.
In his early twenties as his fame began to spread, an early mistress/model, Fernande Olivier, described Picasso as “short, dark, stocky, disturbed, disturbing, with dark, deep, piercing, strange, almost immobile eyes. Awkward movements, a woman’s hands, badly dressed, unkempt.”
In 1904, Picasso settled in the French capital, amid a colorful circle of friends, including artists and street characters. In contrast to Henri Matisse and others who were painting in vivid hues, Picasso continued using muted tonalities, moving on from a predominately blue palette to softer, even mellow ochers and pinks. As Isabelle Limousin writes in the catalog, “Once ice-cold, his palette now acquired the warmth and tenderness of ocher.”
During this period, Picasso shifted from painting tragic figures to images of nudes, harlequins and itinerant entertainers †carnival performers, clowns, and acrobats (saltimbanques), who existed like gypsies on the fringes of society. Pinkish color schemes, tempered by grays and utilization of simplified figuration is exemplified by “The Two Brothers,” 1906. That same year Picasso painted a rosy-gray “Self-Portrait,” notable for its stylized features and fixed stare, and his Buddha-like likeness of Gertrude Stein.
Drawing on African motifs observed during visits to the Paris museum of ethnology, and on the art of such titans as El Greco, Paul Cezanne and Matisse, Picasso created the most influential artwork of the Twentieth Century, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” in 1907. A jumbled brothel scene, with deformed, masklike faces and bodies of angular women depicted from odd angles, it announced a new direction in Modern painting. While baffling viewers at first, it signaled the onset of the Cubist revolution. “Seated Nude (Study for “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”)” in the exhibition hints at the fragmented angles and tilted planes of what was to come.
Cezanne, whom Picasso referred to as “my only, my unique master! &†He was father to us all,” inspired the younger man to work with Georges Braque to evolve Cubism. Early efforts ran the gamut from the overlapping planes and African mask faces in “Three Figures beneath a Tree,” 1907‱908, to a construction of wood, paint, charcoal and a newspaper fragment, “Guitar and Bottle of Bass,” 1913.
By World War I, which Picasso, as a Spanish citizen, sat out in France, he had replaced Matisse as the leader of the avant-garde. His fame was international and his works sold well on both sides of the Atlantic.
While working on costumes and sets with Sergei Diaghilev, director of the Ballet Russes, Picasso met and married Russian ballerina Olga Kokhlova. His 1918 portrait, in a rather traditional figurative style, shows her seated, pensively gazing at the viewer, dressed in a floral-patterned dress and fan that echo the elaborately decorated armchair. Their son Paul was born in 1921.
In a startling change of pace in the early 1920s, influenced by Greco Roman art, Picasso began to depict large, heavy women in a neoclassical manner. Two giantesses literally falling out of their white dresses in “Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race),” 1922, epitomize this phase.
Picasso had a brief fling with the Surrealists, who drew heavily on Freudian theories about the unconscious, dreams and fantasy, while incorporating aspects of Cubism and Dada. Around this time, unhappy with Olga, he worked on disturbing themes, including violent lovers, aggressive females and monstrously abstracted bathers. “The Kiss,” a vividly colored fantasy of contorted, entangled lovers, was painted in 1925. In the 1930s, Picasso executed a series of engravings on the theme of the minotaur, the half man/half bull monster from Greek mythology.
A new stimulus for Picasso’s art appeared in 1927 when he met the docile and compliant 17-year-old Marie-Therese Walter, beginning a liaison that would dominate his art for a decade. Blonde, with classic features and a pliant body, she became the subject of some of the artist’s most tender and appealing images, both in paint and sculpture. Large oils of her sleeping and reading are among the rounded, cheerful and colorful masterworks of these years. Their child, Maya, was born in 1935; by this time Picasso and Olga had separated.
From the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Picasso’s sympathies were with the republican government. He painted anti-Franco images and, following the Nazi bombing of a Basque village that killed 4,000 people, “Guernica,” demonstrating his searing outrage about that tragedy.
Around this time, Picasso met and began an affair with photographer Dora Maar, a political activist who challenged him in ways he found invigorating. His early, idealized sketches underscored her beauty, but then morphed into spectacular, often emotional Cubist paintings like “Portrait of Dora Maar,” 1937. She also appeared in tear-stained “Weeping Woman” canvases, reflecting Picasso’s anguish about Franco’s victory in Spain and the start of World War II. Meanwhile, there was domestic strife as Walter and Maar became aware of their lover’s duplicity.
Exiled from Franco’s Spain, Picasso never visited his homeland after the Civil War. He lived in Paris during World War II, “traumatized and under attack, but protected by his fame,” says Limousin. Although he was considered degenerate by the Nazi occupiers and was forbidden from exhibiting, he continued to paint, primarily dark, harsh and extremely distorted figures. Joining the Communist Party in 1944, he subsequently attended numerous world peace conferences.
After the war, Picasso lived in a succession of homes in the south of France, sites that could accommodate studio space and room for his by now enormous collection of his own artwork. Accompanying him was a young painter, Françoise Gilot; together they had two children, Claude and Paloma. The presence of young children in the aging artist’s life energized him and brought a measure of playfulness to his art.
Picasso began actively sculpting in the 1940s and 1950s, creating bronze, multi-angled heads, rough-hewn human figures and various animals. He also worked in ceramics, stimulating a revival of popularity of that medium.
Around the mid-1950s, after Gilot and the children moved out, he married Jacqueline Roque, who stayed with him the rest of his life. An old master now himself, he undertook homages to past icons, painting variations on masterpieces by Velazquez, Delacroix and Manet.
Picasso outlived many of his contemporaries, and was particularly moved by the death of his longtime friend Henri Matisse, whom he considered his only peer. “All things considered,” he often said, “there’s only Matisse.”
Following his own advice to “only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone,” in the last decade of his life Picasso worked with astonishing energy, turning out hundreds of paintings, drawings and etching as if in a race against time. The paintings of this period encompassed erotic images, as well as matadors and musketeers inspired by Rembrandt, Velazquez and Goya.
“While his paintings of this period were initially dismissed by critics for hasty execution and vulgar subject matter,” observes Seattle Art Museum curator Chiyo Ishikawa, “they are now celebrated for their urgent, gripping vitality and the fearlessness with which Picasso attacks new painting challenges.”
Picasso made spectacular art while also living well, in splendid places, surrounded by beautiful women and interesting friends. Far from being a playboy, he was in reality a complex man, driven to create in new and different ways.
Pablo Picasso died in 1973 and is buried on the grounds of the chateau of Vauvenargues, near Cezanne’s Mont Saint-Victoire. Well before his death Picasso was regarded as the supreme artistic genius of the Twentieth Century, an artist who changed the course of world art. The most public of artists, for years he was †and continues to be †the subject of biographies, critical analyses and exhibitions, such as this comprehensive overview.
The catalog features full-page reproductions of all works in the exhibition and brief but useful essays by Picasso Museum experts. It sells for $60, hardcover, and $37.50, softcover. After closing in Richmond, “Picasso” travels to Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, June 11⁓eptember 25.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is at 200 North Boulevard. For information, www.vmfa.state.va.us or 804-340-1400.
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