Published: October 23, 2001
By Stephen May
HARTFORD, CONN. – Innovative, adventurous, ambitious and supremely talented, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) is unquestionably the outstanding figure in Twentieth Century painting. His wide influence and his far-reaching creative variety have had an incalculable effect on the course of modern art.
The manner in which this controversial and highly productive artist used the studio as an artistic theme during his seven-decade career is the subject of a splendid exhibition. Organized by Michael FitzGerald, associate professor of fine arts at Trinity College, “Picasso: ” features some 35 paintings and ten drawings covering a wide range of styles and images. The exhibit was on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum this summer, and is currently on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art through January 6, 2002.
Unlike many artists, who regard their studios as private sanctuaries, Picasso started out using his studio not only as a place for work, but as a social and intellectual hub, where his personal life and contemporary events were very much in evidence. Patrons, writers, models and paramours frequented his early workplaces. Later, when he became a celebrity, he sought out more private havens in which to create.
Although this is a relatively small show, gallery after gallery contains stunning works that remain in one’s memory. Picasso’s enormous range of styles – realist, cubist, symbolist, surrealist, abstract and classical – are represented in often eye-popping pictures. Works reflecting his most significant achievements: developing (with Georges Braque) the Cubist method of looking at things, and Picasso’s powerfully expressive applications of this style in the years after World War I are showcased in this enlightening display.
In underscoring the studio as a recurring theme in the artist’s long career, the exhibition reflects Picasso’s ample capacity for experimentation and self-renewal. The show is, in a word, a treat for the eye and the brain.
Born in Malaga, Spain, the son of a painter and art teacher, Picasso showed early talent as a draughtsman under his father’s tutelage. At the age of 19 he began to visit Paris, then the epicenter of world art, finally settling there in 1904.
During his famous “Blue Period,” 1901-1904, the precocious artist produced works marked by a predominately blue palette, haunting atmospheres and social outcasts as subjects. Picasso’s dejected blue actors, clowns, musicians and poor people reflected the young artist’s sadness over personal tragedies he had experienced and his sense of being an outsider in the art world.
“La Vie” (1903), one of the standouts on view, is an enigmatic image set in . An extensive examination of this painting in the exhibition catalogue, by William H. Robinson, associate curator of painting at the Cleveland Museum, sheds valuable light on this ever fascinating and puzzling canvas. It is, writes Robinson, “a masterpiece of fin-de-siecle Symbolism and Picasso’s first major statement about the life of the alienated, bohemian artist.” This is one of many works that will linger long in viewers’s memories.
Things were looking up for the 25-year-old artist when he painted “Self-Portrait with Palette” (1906). It conveys the intense look and suggests the confidence Picasso felt as he began to make his mark in Paris. The simplified style and chiseled, primitive face reflect his commitment to innovation and to aesthetic independence. By this time Picasso had found buyers among art dealers and was doing work for Gertrude Stein, the important expatriate American collector and salon impresario.
During the important period, 1908-1915, when he collaborated with Braque to develop the revolutionary Cubist style, Picasso made few studio images. Perhaps he felt the subject was too traditional for his radical new approach.
Cubism, one of the most significant contributions of Picasso’s storied career, became a kind of parent of all abstract art forms. Rather than depicting one view of an object as it actually appears, Cubism sought to combine several superimposed views of the subject, expressing the idea of the object.
Picasso’s “The Architect’s Table” (1912), depicting an architect’s ruler and a violin, offers shifting viewpoints and compresses three-dimensional forms into flat planes, in line with the painter’s new vision. Gertrude Stein’s calling card, in the lower right, honors his most important patron.
In 1918, Picasso and his bride, Olga Khokhlova, moved into commodious quarters on the rue la Boetie, located in an upscale section of Paris. He made numerous drawings of his cluttered studio, overflowing with musical instruments, chairs, easels, artist’s supplies and paintings. A portrait of his wife is visible in ” in the Rue La Boetie” (1920).
In “Rue La Boetie – Figure in the Studio” (circa 1919), Picasso used a somber palette and fractured Cubist planes to depict the interior of his workspace, crammed with objects and the figure of a woman (presumably Olga) to the right, with a view out the window to a nearby church.
“Nude with Drapery” (1922), a tiny but powerful painting featuring a Neo-classical image of an enormous woman, was purchased by the Wadsworth’s new director, A. Everett “Chick” Austin, in the late 1920s. Showcasing “the power of proportion long to create the impressions of great size by filling a tiny space with Lilliputian hulks,” FitzGerald calls this picture “one of Picasso’s most extreme explorations of the visual effects of disparities between size and scale.” Today the 7½ by 5½- inch beauty is one of the greatest treasures of the Atheneum’s collection.
Convinced of Picasso’s greatness well before most of the art world, Austin mounted the first American retrospective of the artist’s work in 1934. Another prescient museum director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr, followed with the next landmark Picasso exhibition, at the Museum of Modern Art in 1939.
According to FitzGerald, one of Picasso’s two most intense periods exploring the significance of the studio occurred between 1925 and 1934. “During the first phase,” says FitzGerald, “Picasso was inspired by the Surrealists’ fascination with the unconscious to weave a complex series of images that delve into the creative process. Drawing on sources of inspiration as diverse as African tribal subjects and Classical sculpture, he presented the artist in many guises – tribal shaman, Greek god or vengeful Minotaur, among others – to convey the range and variety of artistic inspiration.”
Four of six studio paintings created between 1927 and 1929 are reunited in the exhibition, including “Painter in his Studio” (1928), a transitional work that imaginatively echoes the jumble of canvases and easels that fill the more realistic studio renderings earlier in the decade.
In the early 1930s, estranged from his wife Olga, Picasso moved to the Chateau of Boisgeloup, 40 miles outside Paris, with his mistress, Marie-Therese Walter. Converting a stable into a sculpture studio, he immersed himself in three-dimensional art. Often featuring Walter’s head, these sculptures constitute “a body of work that is among the high points of the medium in the Twentieth Century,” according to FitzGerald.
Picasso also created drawings and paintings on the sculptor-on-the-studio theme. “The Sculptor and his Model” (1931), a feathery pen-and-ink drawing, shows a bearded sculptor carving a small work based on the nude woman posing on a platform before him.
In a brightly hued, nearly abstract canvas, “The Sculptor” (1931), an artist contemplates a female bust (probably Walter). Among the more interesting aspects of this challenging image is the double-sighted head of the sculptor, who looks both at the bust and at the viewer.
Painted on a spring day at his country estate (“Boisgeloup” is inscribed in the upper right hand corner), “The Painter” (1934) links a painter, a model and nature in a colorful, complex picture. The painter, in yellow at the left, is busily at work depicting the curving, lavender-and-turquoise colored figure of a woman, likely his mistress, Walter. “The undulating lines of nature are duplicated in the model’s sinuous languor,” observes FitzGerald of this striking canvas. The Atheneum owns it.
In 1937, Picasso’s outrage at the wanton destruction cased by the bombing of his country in the Spanish Civil War was forcefully expressed in the Cubist distortions and violent emotions of his celebrated painting, “Guernica.” (Alas, not in this show.) His intense feelings about man’s inhumanity to man and his bitter anger at the slaughter of civilians is palpable in this huge black-and-white image. Amidst the carnage, the figure of the bull is a symbol of fascist brutality.
The next year, as the civil war intensified and war clouds developed over Europe, Picasso created four still-life paintings that reflected his concern about oppression and the devastation of armed conflict.
A highlight of these canvases, the brilliantly hued, complex “Palette, Candlestick and Head of a Minotaur” (1938), features the elements enumerated in that title. The images suggest the conflict between peaceful creativity, represented by the palette, candle and book, and war’s brutality, symbolized by the threatening, half-man, half-bull figure of the minotaur.
Picasso spent World War II in occupied Paris where, although under surveillance by the Nazis, he continued to create art. After the war, his increasing celebrity led him to seek places where he could live and work with greater privacy. Utilizing his studio as a sanctuary, he further explored that space as a theme.
Instead of focusing on contemporary events, Picasso began to challenge and reshape works of Old Masters whom he admired, seeking to create images that would secure a high place for himself in the history of art. The results are fascinating.
As early as 1950, in the highly imaginative “Portrait of a Painter, after El Greco,” Picasso paid homage to a great artist who preceded him and made a bold statement about his own credentials as an important painter. “More than any other single painting,” says FitzGerald, this large work “demonstrates his devotion to the past.”
It is a direct copy, he points out, of a portrait by baroque leader El Greco, of his son, the painter Jorge Manuel Theotokoulus, dating to around 1600-1605. Picasso followed the original likeness to a large extent, but by flattening the figure and costume and rendering the head in superimposed profile and frontal views, he transformed the image into a Cubist showpiece. As interpreted by the younger artist, El Greco’s portrait is so altered that, as FitzGerald notes, “most observers would not be able to identify the source without reference to the title.”
In another artistic tour de force, “Woman Drawing (Francoise Gilot),” done in 1951, Picasso celebrated the birth of his two children by Gilot, and her dedication to art. At the time Picasso was 70, Gilot 29. He depicted his lover with her pencil tethered to her drawing board to prevent it from damage when children interrupted her work. A close reading of this painting reveals Picasso’s respect for Gilot’s career as an artist and strains that had developed in their relationship. They parted two years later.
By 1955 Picasso was ensconced in La Californie, an old villa surrounded by a garden overlooking the Mediterranean coast at Cannes. Far removed from the hangers-on and admirers who plagued him in Paris, the world-famous artist acquired the extensive property as a place for concentrated work. He promptly made the grand salon his primary studio.
Perhaps in response to the recent death of his friend and competitor, Henri Matisse, who had made his studio in the south of France a frequent subject of his painting, Picasso turned out a series of canvases based on his large, high-ceilinged salon/studio with its ample views of the outdoors.
“The Studio” (1955) is a particularly stunning painting, featuring a characteristically busy interior and its view of the brilliant garden through French doors. “Populated with his paints, brushes, paintings and sculpture, Picasso’s studio is … removed from the seductive world outside and … highly energized,” FitzGerald observes.
A year later, in the same room, he posed his current lover and future wife, seated and in profile, eyeing a painting on an easel. “Jacqueline in the Studio” and “Woman in the Studio (Jacqueline Roque),” both painted in 1956, capture the gentle, reserved personality of the woman who captivated Picasso at last. Their marriage in 1961 endured until his death in 1973. “Without question,” says FitzGerald, “this was the most steady of Picasso’s many relationships with women.”
Between 1955 and 1973 Picasso delved for the most extended period into the theme of . “Picasso created dozens of paintings that move from realistic renderings of the rooms in which he worked to evocations of great artists of the past, and final confrontations with life’s passing,” writes curator FitzGerald. “In his last years he courageously grappled with his physical deterioration by portraying the artist as a failing old man, before closing his career in a final burst of optimism by transforming the artist into a vigorous child.”
Some of the most interesting works continued to reflect Picasso’s thoughts about his place in the history of painting and how he would stack up against the achievements of past titans. Suggesting the intensity of his response, in a spectacular burst of creative output in 1957, the 76-year-old artist produced 45 pictures in four months based on Diego Rodriguez de Silva Velazquez’s famed “Las Meninas” (1656).
In the original, set in his studio in the Prado, the great Velazquez (1599-1660) depicted a group of attendants waiting on the young princess as the artist looks on from the side and a mirror reflects images of his patrons, the king and queen. This much-admired painting, which FitzGerald calls “probably the greatest painting of an artist’s studio,” has influenced numerous American and European artists.
In Picasso’s version he asserted his independence by eliminating even reflections of the royal couple; the focus is on their offspring and her entourage. “Las Meninas, after Velazquez” (1957) is a particularly fine example of the way in which Picasso drew inspiration from a major figure in Spanish art, and then employed his special brand of Cubism to transform an iconic work.
With advancing age and intimations of mortality in mind, the studio became an even more important subject in Picasso’s last decade. In his 80s he continued to be receptive to new ideas, looking closely at contemporary art and culture for innovative ways of making art. He was certainly aware of and may have been influenced by the looser brushwork and expressive imagery of such Abstract Expressionists as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.
In the spring of 1963 Picasso created more than a dozen paintings of an artist in profile, seated at an easel and at work on a picture – often of a nude female model. “The Artists,” with its thick brushstrokes and image of a painter vigorously attacking a canvas on an easel, suggests homage to Vincent van Gogh. This work is from Wadsworth Atheneum’s collection.
“Painter and his Model,” also of 1963, utilizes a horizontal format to show a large artist working at an easel that separates him from an equally good-sized nude model. In addition to featuring Picasso’s Cubist vocabulary, this picture, says FitzGerald, “is a bravura demonstration of oil on canvas, the technique of the Old Masters…”
Painted four days before his 80th birthday, Picasso’s “Painter and Infant” (1969) is an intriguing exploration into the issue of an artist’s old age, a subject that haunted his final years. It pairs a baby with a bearded, reclining old man, who holds a palette and brushes in one hand and seems to be handing a brush to the child. The baton is being passed, in effect, from the past to the future.
It is a fitting conclusion to an eye-appealing and intellectually stimulating exhibition on the theme of the artist and his studio. Reflecting changes in contemporary culture and political life as well as in his personal situations, Picasso’s lengthy exploration of this subject offers fascinating insights into the charismatic and influential painter.
As his oeuvre suggests, over the course of his career his studio shifted from a place of entertainment and bustling activity to a sanctuary from the pressures of a celebrity-obsessed public, a haven where he could examine and endlessly reinvigorate his creative impulses.
Displaying the full range of Picasso’s fecund artistic arsenal, this informative exhibition is a welcome reminder of the versatility, imagination and aesthetic sensibilities of the man Kate M. Sellers, director of the Wadsworth Atheneum and Katharine Lee Reid, director of the Cleveland Museum appropriately call “the most important and influential artist of the Twentieth Century.”
The 208-page exhibition catalogue is unusually attractive. It includes a comprehensive essay and entries on individual works by FitzGerald and Robinson’s chapter on “La Vie.”
With 100 color and 75 black-and-white illustrations, the volume offers both scholarly insights and visual pleasure. Published by the Wadsworth Atheneum in association with Yale University Press, it sells for $50 (hardcover) and $29.95 (softcover).
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