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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, "Head of a woman (Fernande)," Horta de Ebro, summer, 1909. Conté crayon and charcoal on wove paper, 62.8 x 48 cm.  Musée national Picasso-Paris, Pablo Picasso Gift in Lieu, 1979, MP 642. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris)/Art Resource, NY, Matthieu Rabeau © 2020 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The NY Times has also tried to fill its columns with book reviews of current exhibition catalogues.  But the two I've seen (in its May 22 issue), don't in my opinion measure up to the one I've chosen. The Times evidently felt obligated to review the catalogue for the Gerhard Richter show at the Met's Breuer annex (a space now to be taken over by the Frick), plus a Jean-Michel Basquiat show at the MFA Boston.  I decided to leave the fashion-conscious East Coast and head inland to the Cleveland Museum of Art, which knows a true giant when it sees one. It had scheduled a mammoth show of "Picasso and Paper" for May, postponed its opening to September -- and now (alas!) has been forced to postpone its opening indefinitely as European restrictions on travel to and from our plague-ridden republic have made it impossible to bring the show from the U.K. at the present time.. 


Earlier this year (before the lockdown began) this same show opened at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, and they still have a virtual tour of it online but for reasons I shall be discussing in the course of this review,I found the large and elegant Picasso catalogue more illuminating and am herewith spending most of this review discussing it (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2020; 325 pp., 376 illus.)  What a joy it is!





True, we all know that Picasso was a genius, and this town has never lacked for exposure to him.  I was first given an in-depth look at his talents in 1967, when I was still on Time and MoMA staged a big show of his sculpture. 


In 1980, when MoMA was under the curatorship of William Rubin, it turned over its then-entire building to a mammoth retrospective of the full range of the master's creations, I went through that show again and again -- for a lengthy review that never did make it into print, but that taught me about the full range of his art as no other show could have. 


More recently, MoMA accorded Picasso's sculpture another full-dress exhibition in the fall & winter of 2015-16, and the Guggenheim found a new way to illuminate the master with its show of "Picasso: Black and White" in 2012.  


Since 2010, there have been  shows of Picassos from the permanent collections of both MoMA and the Met, while the Frick did a smaller but equal or even lovelier show of early Picasso drawings as well.


Finally, you have only to tune in to the Gagosian website to see how that monster gallery has been mounting Picasso exhibitions on an almost continuous basis at its many world-wide locations.  Since 2009, there have been nine in New York alone, or nearly one every year.


True, the emphasis has been on later work, especially paintings, and the master's later paintings tend to leave me cold.  The only Picasso show at Gagosian that I remember seeing (and I don't seem to have written it up) was the 2011 one documenting the master's relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter in the 1920s/30s.




Given all this exposure, what is there left to show of Picasso's work that hasn't been shown before?  The answer is, a lot. Turns out that the man was a compulsive doodler – that he drew, cut, tore, painted and/or wrote upon any & every scrap of paper or cardboard that came to hand – and that he was also a compulsive hoarder. 


In his later years especially he never seems to have thrown away any piece of paper or cardboard that he'd altered in any way.


He saw himself – and he wasn't far wrong – as a master who enriched every item he touched. 


So this show is like a mighty monument that includes not only finished works that he sold but also ones that he never sold and also preliminary sketches & drafts and experiments that went into the creation of everything not only unsold but also sold or given away to museums over the course of his long life and after his death. 


Some of the finished works in this show are sculpture, oils on canvas or photographs of finished work. They all serve to compare completed work with preliminary drawings, but a large part of the show – in my opinion, and I can only judge from the catalogue – seem to fall into that intriguing category of "experiments," jokes, and/or "works in progress."




There would have been room for much of this inspired clutter in Picasso's 35-room hilltop villa at Mougins in southern France, where he had moved in 1961 and lived until his death at the age of 91 in 1973.  His widow, Jacqueline Roque, would continue to live there until her death in 1986, but in the meantime there was the task of settling his will and dividing what he'd left among his heirs, including not only his widow but also his four children, Paolo, Maya, Claude & Paloma.


There was also the little matter of estate taxes on the artist's multimillion-franc estate – which would eventually be calculated to include not only the contents of the Mougins villa but also art in some if not all of the previous homes and  studios where the artist had lived and worked throughout his more than eight-decades-long career.


Fortunately, French law permits the donation of valuable property to the government "in lieu" of estate taxes, and Picasso's work was deemed valuable enough not only to justify the government's accepting a very large amount of it but also to creating the Musée National Picasso Paris to house it in an equally stately 17th century hôtel particulier or townhouse.


And, although "Picasso and Paper" will not appear at this museum, the museum is a co-organizer of it.


The over whelming majority of the more than 300 works on the current show's checklist seems according to the catalogue to have come from these "in lieu" donations (either the one from Picasso's estate in 1979 or the one from his widow's in 1990). 


But Heaven only knows how many more items are housed by the Musée National Picasso Paris altogether. As nearly as I can tell from the information in the catalogue, thousands more documents entered French national collections due to a further gift made in 1992, so that the "Pablo Picasso  Archive" is estimated today to contain 200,000 items in all.


The current show also includes a small sampling of work from the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, to which the artist donated a group of very early pieces in 1970. 


In all, the show includes drawings, paintings (in oil, gouache and watercolor), collages, life-size sculptures, smaller cutouts, photographs, prints and book illustrations.


Not everything in this show is equally describable as "high art."  Some items in my opinion come nearer to the category of "memorabilia," for example two envelopes addressed to Picasso in 1956 and '57 with a small  & cryptic symbol for an eye drawn on each, and two little manufacturer's booklets with sample papers bound into them (dates unknown).


Nor (I hope) would any museum have wanted to pay good money for any of the embellished glossy pages of girlie magazines with color photographs of scantily-clad cuties – not even the hilarious one from 1957 which is embellished by Picasso's ink portrait of Jaime Sabartés, his longtime friend and secretary, hovering nude (except for his spectacles) and goatishly above a cutie clad only in high heels, full-length black stockings and a one-piece black lace undergarment.


Paper, too, can be a very fragile material.  Picasso used many different kinds of it.  The most durable were all kinds of fine-art papers, and he employed some dating back to the 18th century (paper conservators can tell the age of many antique ones from their watermarks). 


But (among much else) he also used wrapping paper, wallpaper, cardboard, paper napkins and hotel stationery.  Especially fragile are the works on aged newsprint and the pages of paperback books published up to more than a century ago. 


Some of the full pages of newsprint in this catalogue have powerful drawings on them but have turned yellow or even brown with age. 


And yet, as with the girlie mags, there is such an engaging air of informality about them! Together with all of the many preparatory sketches, fully-worked out drawings, collages that look as though they're not quite finished, and other experiments, they give us the feeling that we're right there in the artist's studio, marveling at each twist and turn of his preternaturally agile fingers, scissors, brush, conté crayon, pencil, charcoal or pen.




Most fascinating to me are the freestanding and mostly small pieces of paper that were cut or torn out by Picasso to form a variety of objects over the years. 


The  first item illustrated in the catalogue (but exhibited alas only in London) is a marvelously faithful cutout of a little dog, created circa 1890 when the artist would only have been around nine years old, and was still living with his family in Málaga, where he'd been born.


Then we skip to 1912 - 1914, when the artist had recently begun exploring collage and such well-known constructions as MoMA's "Guitar" and the Tate's "Still Life" with ball fringe.


Here (in addition to another fully constructed guitar) is a group of 14 crisply regular and carefully painted little paper cut-outs, ranging from a cuttlefish (with its wavy tentacles fully extended) to playing cards (with the ace of clubs on them) and including a gray pipe, a green feathered wing, a cubist pear (with stem & leaf), and two red- and yellow-striped lightbulbs.  The lightbulbs (according to the catalogue) were preparation for a painting called "Portrait of a Girl."


All these objects take up six pages of the catalogue, and are followed by a two-page spread of six variants on the strings of a guitar, tall narrow & stark cut-outs with black and white vertical stripes.


They're all slightly different in proportion and details (two of them having round cut-out "sound holes" and one having an inked-on black disc that serves the same purpose ideographically).  The combination of the six makes a striking display.


Skipping again up to 1943, we come to another group of cutouts – or perhaps it would be more appropriate to call them "torn-outs" rather than cutouts?  Unlike the group done ca. 1914, they are not made of artists' papers, but something much cheaper – paper napkins maybe? 


Remember, this was the middle of World War II, when Paris (where Picasso was living) was still behind enemy lines. Whatever the technique used to create them, these fragile objects are still witty and likeable: a tall narrow goat, a long narrow glove, a squat row of folk dancers, a chicken's head and a knife & fork.


But the star from this period (illustrated elsewhere in the catalogue) is the head of a fluffy little bichon, torn from a napkin so that its ears flop out to the sides and its eyes and mouth are delineated by cigarette holes (with a bit of scorching over the mouth to indicate the nose). 


This was a portrait of a pet of Dora Maar, Picasso's lover of this period. The dog had died, so Picasso made a whole series of these little paper ones as his way of bringing it back to life.


The final group of cutouts is the most hilarious. They are three hulking, freestanding female nudes, delineated and cut out in the artist's typically wobbly and grotesque late style (dated 1962). 


According to their labels, they are somehow related to the series of 27 paintings that Picasso made that were inspired by Manet's "Déjeuner sur l'Herbe."   I've never been able to relate to any of those 27, but the cutouts are divine.      




Most of the catalogue is devoted to reproducing work from the ten different sections into which the works in the show are divided. 


They are 1) early works and the Blue Period; 2) the Rose Period; 3) "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon;" 4) Cubism 5) Neoclassicism, Naturalism and "Parade;" 6) Surrealism and Marie-Thérèse Walter; 7) "Guernica" and the War Years; 8) Encounters with Delacroix and Manet; 9) Materials and Techniques; and 10) The Last  Studio.


Standouts in the early parts of the show include the extraordinarily proficient "Academic Study of a Plaster Cast After the Antique" in charcoal and chalk that Picasso made around 1893 or 1894, when barely into his teens and living with his family in La Coruña.  


This would have been before he entered art school in Barcelona (his father was an art teacher who had moved from one job in Málaga to another in La Coruña and then to another in Barcelona).


Also fascinating are preliminary drawings for "La Vie" (1903), a masterpiece from the Blue Period.  The finished oil painting (also in the show) portrays a nude couple on the left and a woman with a baby on the right, but the preliminary drawings indicate that originally Picasso intended to show an artist in his smock instead of this woman…..


Equally educational are some of the preliminary sketches for "Les Demoiselles." They show that Picasso originally planned to include two men in it, a sailor and a medical student, in addition to the five women who wound up by themselves in the finished painting. 


The finished painting itself is represented in this show only by a large photograph of it – MoMA never or practically never loans out the original. 


Also it's interesting to look at some of the other preliminary sketches and studies for "Les Demoiselles," some in pen and ink from sketchbooks and some often larger ones in pastel or watercolor.  


According to the catalogue, for this painting, Picasso made hundreds of sketches and filled 16 notebooks with them, working for over six months on it, from late 1906 to the summer of 1907.


And there are some good-looking studies of women made after "Les Demoiselles" was painted, with the African-influenced facial features that are such a distinctive aspect of this seminal painting.


The immediately preceding Rose Period is well stocked with colorful gouaches and watercolors of slender nubile nudes, either preparatory for larger paintings or seemingly finished in themselves.


Also notable is a remarkable pinkish tan and pale brown gouache cityscape of the hilltop town of Gosol, done circa 1906 and with its sculpturally-shaped little houses anticipating cubism by several years.  


But (I find by rapidly thumbing through Rubin's 1980 MoMA catalogue) this show – however pleasurable --- cannot be considered a definitive chronicle of everything that was going on in Picasso's life during this period. 


For instance, I did not find any images that related to the paintings of massively statuesque females that distinguished Picasso's brief "Iberian" period during the latter half of 1906.


In fact, in general I would suspect that all the work in the collections of the Museé National Picasso Paris grows scantier, the further back in time we go – and conversely that the closer in time to the present we get, the more fully the work outlines exactly what Picasso was up to.


This I explain not only through the fact that with time and moving from one residence to another, and from one studio to another, things do tend to get mislaid. I also suspect that the earlier work has had more time to get given away or sold, and to leave the artist's possession for that of others.


Still, there is so much more to enjoy in this show that if I tried to describe it all, my readers would lose patience with me.  There are some wonderful drawings in the "Cubism" section, largely but not entirely related to the famous sculptured "Head of a Woman (Fernande)" (1909).


And there are some impressive portrait drawings in the "Neoclassicism" section, often based on photographs, of people to whom the artist evidently felt himself drawn right after World War I, from his wife, Olga Khokhlova to the composer, Igor Stravinsky, and on to the aged impressionist, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (based on a photograph by the dealer, Ambroïse Vollard).


Nor should I omit reference to the six illuminating catalogue essays which precede the listings of the ten sections in the actual exhibition. I was particularly taken by three of these. 


First was the introduction written by William H. Robinson, senior curator of modern art at the Cleveland Museum, and the man who will be overseeing the installation of this show in Cleveland.


 Second was the essay by Emilia Philippot, chief curator and head of collections at the Museé National Picasso Paris, who lucidly analyzed the many different uses that Picasso had for paper, from "Learning" to "Searching" "Experimenting" and "Keeping." 


Third was the essay by Emmanuelle Hincelin, an independent paper conservator in Paris, who told me all about the many, many different types of paper that Picasso used, and the properties of each.




I chose to review the catalogue of "Picasso and Paper" originally because I figured that a book with paper pages would offer more accurate reproductions of works on paper than it could possibly offer of paintings on canvas let alone free-standing sculpture.  


But after spending about a week examining the catalogue to this show, I couldn't resist going to the website of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, where the show itself was officially opened on January 25 and was scheduled to close on April 13. 


Though the show closed to the public in March due to the pandemic, the website still offered the same sort of "virtual tour" that galleries and museums in New York are currently offering.  But how different the tour was from the experience of looking at the catalogue – and not entirely for the better!


The best thing about the virtual tour was that it provided information about the actual scale of the works on view, and some of them are surprisingly large. 


But the first thing I noticed, as the camera wove its quiet authoritative way through the totally depopulated galleries of the RA, was that all of the many drawings and most of the other flat images hanging on the tastefully-painted walls were surrounded by wide mats (or as the English call them, mounts), as well as being framed and further enshrined under glass. 


This was totally different from the way they are reproduced in the book, and – while underscoring the preciousness and beauty of the individual pieces – also removed them from the intimacy of the book page, where one can lean over and stick one's nose practically down to the reproduced image if one so desires.


The various cutouts that I was so impressed by were mounted in several installments between freestanding sheets of glass (most likely, Plexiglas but I can't be sure of their exact chemical composition). This placement made them appear to float in mid-air.


While still charming, most of them looked a lot smaller and somehow more forlorn and delicate than they had on the printed page – all except for the wobbly late nudes related to the Manet "Déjeuner."  These looked as entertainingly bold and brassy as ever.


I know it's an unenlightened thing to say, but although most of the work in this show, especially the flat pieces, must look a lot more beautiful and moving in the gallery setting, they also looked more remote online.


They lost most of that busy, bustling air of experiment and braggadocio that they somehow retain on the printed page and that must have been so characteristic of Picasso. 


With the book, one mysteriously got a slight feeling of being with him in his studio. Maybe one gets that feeling when seeing the actual show in the flesh, but the virtual tour just didn't  have  it.    It was too serene.


Since I looked at the virtual show, however, I have learned that the R.A. has opened again, anyway to its "Friends," that it will be opening to  the general public on July 16, and  that the Picasso show will be up until August 2. Of course, all the special tickets  you need for it though free seem to  have been spoken for (though if you subscribe to the R.A. newsletter, you may learn if additional tickets become available.).


However, for my American readers, this is academic since (as noted above) visitors from the U.S. are currently unwelcome on British shores. Your best bet is on waiting for the Cleveland showing whenever it takes place -- or breaking down and buying this truly beautiful catalogue.





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