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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). Bust of a Woman, Paris, spring 1909. Gouache on paper, 25 x 19 inches. Private Collection (c)2011 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
I urge you to run and see a practically perfect show: “Picasso’s Drawings, 1890-1921: Reinventing Tradition,” at The Frick Collection (through January 8; then at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, February 5 through May 6). This show, of more than sixty drawings (in pencil, ink, watercolor, gouache, pastel and chalk) was organized by Susan Grace Galassi, of the Frick, and Marilyn McCully, whom I suspect knows more about Picasso than any living human, including John Richardson. Talk about selection! Nearly every piece in this show is amazing, and the balance between the different periods and different styles and different media is practically perfect, too. This is what happens when a show is built, not around what the museum in question happens to own, or around a single theme or a single phase in an artist’s career, but simply when two curators get together and try to figure out, not only what best tells the story of an artist’s development during his early & most brilliant years, but also just what looks supremely good.

The show opens with a terrific little drawing made when Picasso was only nine. It shows a statuettes of Hercules that was in the hallway of his parent’s home, and what’s extraordinary about it is the way it captures the entire figure in one line that outlines it completely, showing how the artist, even at that early age, saw his subjects whole and indivisible. This drawing and the next 4 are all from the collection of juvenilia that the artist gave to the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, and they’re all brilliant (even if the selection at the Frick doesn’t include my own favorite from that museum: the view of the bay, with its rock formations, at La Coruña, where the artist & his family lived when the artist was about eleven; that drawing is so accurate that I was able to compare it with the photographs I took when I visited La Coruña myself in 2000). By the age of fifteen, as the study of a plaster cast of a Greco-Roman torso shows, Picasso had mastered all the techniques that art school had to teach him–anatomical accuracy, modeling and shading, and chiaroscuro. From here on in, he would swim with art history in the making.

This exhibition follows him through his Art Nouveau, Blue and Iberian periods to the beginnings of cubism, where the display erupts with startling views of human figures and curious combinations of styles. The progression thereafter from naturalism to near-abstraction is chronicled through a series of heads and full-length figures. One of the most beautiful is the fully-colored “Nudes in a Forest” (1908), MoMA’s famous small-scale variant upon “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (or perhaps a variant upon Cézanne’s bathers). Even more fully finished is the richly colored gouache “Bust of a Woman” (1909). All these, however, are forerunners to the acme in Picasso’s development, Analytic Cubism, which lasted from for a bare two years.

This crucial moment, which influenced practically everything else in art history which has gone on since, is documented by three awesome, sublimely spare and equally suggestive drawings of standing nude women, done in nothing but ink on paper (only one has been at all embellished, & then only by wash). The first, done in the summer of 1910, is the most abstract, barely identifiable through its vertical orientation. The last, done in the summer of 1912, includes clever little clues to breast and buttocks, signifying that the moment of subordinating nature to ambiguity is passing. After this, the show proceeds on its triumphant way from experimentation to the artist’s rediscovery of the tradition of classical draftsmanship, with its wickedly accurate but unforgettable portrait of Ambroise Vollard (1915), and the bland, somewhat cow-like but still lovely ladies of the 1920s.

Normally, I am not too happy with Picasso shows that emphasize this last period. As far as I’m concerned, it was a step back, not a step forward. Still, it’s particularly appropriate for the Frick, as its founder and chief collector, Henry Clay Frick, never really related to the latest developments in contemporary art when he was doing his acquiring. During the same period covered by this show, Frick was tanking up on the Old Masters which form the core of the museum’s current collection. If he had collected any Picasso, it would have been Blue Period or the Classical one, so it is only fitting that this show should conclude with Picasso’s return (however temporarily) to the classics. How, in fact, this wonderful but undeniably modern show should have ended up at the Frick at all is a mystery, but hey, who’s complaining? Go and enjoy, but bear in mind that this is one of those “timed-ticket” extravaganzas, so you need to reserve space in advance. You can do it online, via Telecharge or – subject to availability – when you get there (it’s “pay what you wish” from 11 to 1 on Sundays).

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