Picasso Sculpture opened to great acclaim last September at New York’s Museum of Modern Art before moving to the Musée National Picasso-Paris and is now to be seen at BOZAR in Brussels. The exhibition as it appears in Europe is not, however, a straight transfer of the MOMA show but concentrated on Picasso’s use of multiples, series and variations in his artistic work. Use of reproductive methods can be confusing but this is not in any way an exhibition of reproductions of diminishing interest or authenticity. It demonstrated how Picasso used reproductive processes to bring out different resonances and paths from a single design.
Reviewed across Europe the British press commented little on it. Despite his major influence on twentieth century art comprehensive exhibitions of Picasso’s sculpture have been few. Even during his lifetime while pieces were exhibited, it was infinitely less so than were his paintings. There were also fewer publications dealing with his sculpture. Some spread the word, like André Breton’s Picasso dans son element in the 1933 inaugural issue of Minotaure. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler’s book, The Sculptures of Picasso, finally published in 1949, was the first significant study of Picasso’s sculpture. Both these publications were aided by Brassaï’s haptic photographs that with dramatic camera angles and lighting emphasised the sculpture’s tangible qualities. It was not until the huge 1966 Homage à Pablo Picasso exhibition, in celebration of Picasso’s eighty fifth birthday, that he let much of the work he had kept hidden behind his studio doors be exhibited for the first time and the public at large were duly awed by its fecundity and invention. Since then major exhibitions of Picasso’s sculptures have occurred only once in a generation and his sculptures remain little known. As Picasso kept most of it himself, both the plasters and bronze casts, comprehensive exhibitions of it cannot be drawn solely from the four museums in France and Spain devoted to his work. Much of the work still remains with his heirs, the Picasso family, and they have made generous loans to the exhibition, adding to the exhibitions significance.
Picasso underwent a very thorough classical training as a painter but had no training at all as a sculptor. His approach to his sculpture was notably non-traditional and full of improvisation and the Musée Picasso’s exhibition starts with just such a piece of improvisation. Two not quite identical pieces face each other, two versions of La femme enceinte, from 1950. One is made in plaster incorporating ceramic pots forming the woman’s breasts and swelling belly; the other is a cast in bronze. It must be noted that throughout his life for Picasso it was his plaster sculptures that where the originals. They were not intermediary stages on the way to becoming bronzes. Thus these would be two separate works for Picasso. The change in La femme enceinte’s materials also changes their resonance. The plaster and hollow ceramic version conveys ideas of fragility and the concept of woman as vessel privately carrying the child within; cast in more robust bronze the vessel qualities and fragility are lost, but tradition, enduring, stable and timelessness is evoked linking it to monumental public sculpture.
Pablo Picasso La Femme enceinte Vallauris, 1950-15 mars 1959 Bronze, Musée national Picasso-Paris 15-624257/MP338 Photo © RMN-Grand Palais/ Mathieu Rabeau © Succession Picasso 2016
Sculpture was an integral part of Picasso’s practice throughout his life, although it remained a sporadic activity done in distinct periods with years often passing between these periods. Each burst of activity brought a different approach and themes he addressed in one medium are found across his whole oeuvre.
Having opened with the 1950 La femme enceinte, the exhibition then follows a chronological path and the viewer is confronted with multiple pieces, many of them the same. They are casts from clay sculptures Picasso sold the art dealer, Ambrose Vollard, in September 1910 that Vollard, not Picasso, cast in bronze for commercial and traditional aesthetic purposes. While it is not clear how many casts Vollard had made exhibited here are three bronzes of Picasso’s 1905 Le Fou, two of the 1906 Head of a Woman (Fernande) and four bronzes and two plasters of Picasso’s 1909 cubist Head of a Woman (Fernande). The earlier 1906 Head of a Woman (Fernande) with its rough unfinished hair and an unevenly modelled face, one eye left just sketched in, looks back to Rodin’s obsession with the non finito, while Picasso’s 1909 Head of a Woman (Fernande) look forwards to cubism, the past and the future. Seeing so many multiples draws the eye to compare forms, finishes and patinations, of which I wish there had been more discussion.
Pablo Picasso Tête de femme (Fernande) Paris, automne 1909 Plâtre de fonderie, 47 x 35,9 x 34,9 cm © Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection, Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas LO1712 Photographer : Tom Jenkins © Succession Picasso 2016
A ‘Primitivist’ room devoted to wooden sculptures, carved with rudimentary tools from 1906 to 1908 shows Picasso edging towards cubism in an exploration of Iberian and early Romanesque Catalan sculpture and African tribal masks with totemic faceted qualities. His exploration of the multiple truly begins with his Verre d’absinthe from 1914, a piece the dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, had cast in bronze. Rarely seen together as here all six casts of the Verre are displayed in the same case allowing direct comparison, in New York they were separated in separate cases. While the casts are similar in form and all topped with a real absinthe spoon and bronze lump of sugar. Picasso painted each cast differently with spots, solid colours and sand for texture varying them. His ability to play ambiguously with forms is seen in the jaunty angle of the absinthe spoon on the glass’s rim that recalls a flâneur’s straw boater, or the slouch of a drinker of absinthe? The same room contains tiny, hand sized, cubist bas reliefs that show the theme of opacity and transparency explored in the Verre that relate to Picasso and Braque’s cubist obsession with the piercing of solid form.
Pablo Picasso Le Verre d’absinthe Paris, printemps 1914 Bronze peint à l’huile, cuillère à absinthe en métal blanc, 21,6 x 16,4 x 8,5 cm The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Louise Rheinardt Smith, 1956 Photo © Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence © Succession Picasso 2016
The late 1920s and early 1930s saw Picasso again dealing with pieced or transparent forms creating a series of small maquettes in response to a rare commission for a monument to mark the grave of his friend, the poet and critic, Guilliame Apollinaire, who had died in 1918. Using rods and wires he created three-dimensional drawings in space, sculptures made from nothingness that echo the void his friend’s death had left and refer to Apollinaire’s The poète assassin in which Picasso’s alter ego, the Bird of Benin, had made a ‘profound statue made out of nothing, like poetry and glory’.
Not possessing the quality of mass usually associated with fine art sculpture, but made from a void by construction and forging techniques linked them to the minor genre of the decorative arts not to traditional, commemorative sculpture. They were just too radicle. The committee turned each maquette down and none would leave the artist’s possession. Yet Picasso’s engagement with the them continued and later in his life he commissioned enlargements of these maquettes from Joseph Marius Triola, through whom he made bent metal sculpture in the 1960s.
When working in metal Picasso was always heavily reliant on the technical expertise of others and for the Apollinaire maquettes he was aided by the Catalan metalsmith, Julio González. This period of sculptural activity, late 1920s and early 1930s, saw Picasso involved more personally in the making of many of his metal sculpture and the work on Apollinaire’s monument culminated, for Picasso at least, with his full sized La femme au jardin created out of scraps of iron found in González’s workshop. Picasso got González to copy this iron sculpture in welded and forged bronze and both pieces are in the current exhibition. They stand confronting each other with their philodendron branches and windblown hair on the museum’s first floor landing, one painted white, one patinated black. The collaboration with González resulted in the creation of other pieces, the Tête de femme and Tête d’homme among them. Like La femme au jardin they were made from workshop scraps, but Tête de femme incorporates a domestic object, a colander that forms the back of the woman’s head.
La femme au jardin. Picasso at the Galerie Georges Petit, Paris 1932. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais/ Mathieu Rabeau © Succession Picasso 2016
Undeterred by the failure of the Apollinaire commission Picasso continued working on sculpture during the 1930s at his country house, Boisgeloup, there he produced a series of tall narrow angular wooden figures, carved in fir that recall the stockier pieces he carved in 1906 leading up to cubism. None withstanding his untraditional approach to the making of his sculpture Picasso now had examples of these pieces cast in bronze thus treating them in a traditional way. They are among the first Picasso himself, rather than a dealer, had cast in bronze. He would use bronze to unify and evoke tradition in the most untraditional of materials.
There follows a series of plaster biomorphic human forms. Similar contorted figures appear in his paintings done the same year. They culminate in the great plaster heads of his mistress Marie-Thérèse in which he gradually distorted her physiognomy into surreal creations that express unconscious desires, yet classical art emerges in a series of plaster bas reliefs of Marie-Thérèse that recall classical Roman coins and more playful ancient Gallo-roman coins, popular with the surrealists at the time.
Earlier we had seen Picasso use found objects, the absinthe spoon and colander, now working in plaster allowed him to ‘borrow’ textures, taking casts from corrugated cardboard, cloth or leaves, amalgamating them into mythic sprites like La femme au feuillage, of 1934, in her classical chiton. All of these processes were transgressive but they would be translated into bronze as Picasso had a large number of his 1930s plaster sculptures cast in bronze during World War II. Ostensibly this was done for their security, plaster being delicate and likely to break, by that time using the traditional bronze casting process could be termed a subversive act.
His work with objet trouvé continued both during and after the war and employed with great skill and humour simultaneously having them cast into bronze. This time, as Picasso himself would say, it was to give ‘the most diverse objects such unity that it’s sometimes difficult to identify the constituent parts.’ Yet that double vision is the key to their magic. One sees the old basket, the outsized shoe and the corrugated card in his 1950 Petite Fille sautant à la corde, but they also read as the girl’s body, feet and hair. La guenon et son petit of 1951 famously incorporates his son Claude’s toy cars to form the ape’s head, a ceramic pot for the belly and a car spring for the tail; some say the sculpture is of the artist himself holding his baby son, Claude, or there is the 1958 Tête made from a wooden box, nails, buttons for eyes and plaster. This latter piece again incorporates a void; the inside of the box with which he evokes the volume of the head itself. The box’s thin walls look forwards to Picasso’s bent metal sculptures. All of these pieces are displayed next to their bronze casts, tradition and innovation, sameness and difference side by side.
Picasso’s bent metal sculpture begun in two-dimensions in paper then enlarged into sheet metal with the help of Tobias Jellinek in the 1950s, Lionel Prejger and Triola in the 1960s, the work again approaches the issues of mass and solidity by using media associated with their opposites. Their subtle folds cast shadows indicating the volume and weight of traditional sculptural qualities. Often asking his collaborators to make two or more examples of the same pieces, he would take come further painting them colourfully, like Femme au chapeau of 1961-1963 that sits beside an unpainted version, form and colour beside each other. This colourful work chimes with to his painting, his ceramics and painted wooden sculptures in turn linking them to medieval polychromy. Other pieces were enlarged to monumental size in Bétogravure concrete by Carl Nesjar fulfilling a long time interest of Picasso’s that of monumental sculpture, yet as always approaching traditional attribute of fine art sculpture in transgressive ways.
Pablo Picasso Femme au chapeau Cannes, 1961 Tôle découpée, pliée, peinte en 1963 126 x 73 x 41 cm Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Beyeler Collection BEYELER.1961 Photo : Peter Schibli, Basel © Succession Picasso 2016
The exhibition carried the sculpture’s inventiveness lightly. Themes were explored in different ways over years. Their playfulness made it is easy to overlook or dismiss their subversive message. Still tradition was always there, Daphne still run from Apollo in his La femme au jardin. This was an exhibition that does what exhibitions should do: make you look and think.
By Clare Finn
BOZAR, Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels
October 26 – March 5 2017