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Essay | Fighting Against Productivity by Anna Aguilar

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Psychogeography: the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment […] on the emotions and behaviour of individuals”

Guy Debord, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, 1955

Despite the academic jargon that is so intricately connected with the term “psychogeography”, its study is not only universally approachable, but necessary in our contemporary reality. London, the nightmarish hive we have created, continues to grow vertically and horizontally while its inhabitants remain oblivious to the intricacies of their environment.

Our lack of proximity to nature in the city requires constant effort to consciously read our surroundings. Despite our understanding of the artificial construction of the city, the inner workings of buildings, cars, computers or anything else around us is illegible to natural beings. We don’t really understand how everything around us functions beyond the superficial. Hence, we associate nature with peacefulness and contrastingly feel the necessity to ‘escape’ from the city towards something less overwhelming.

We often forget, or disassociate, from the fact that London is built on top of the same thing as its green outskirts. The city doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but rather follows the landscape of its surroundings. When we walk from Piccadilly to Oxford Circus we don’t recognise that we are walking up a hill in the same way as we do walking in the countryside. Concrete skews our perception of topography.

I recently spent a week in an unremarkable town in South West England. Throughout the day, which I spent alone, I found myself feeling trapped and anxious. There was nothing to do because the town centre had no consumer goods that interested me. My life in London had triggered a craving for a constant input of artificial information. I craved being surrounded by intense movement and by people equally hungry for goods; innovation, technology, fashion.


On the last day I decided to leave the house and walk. I found a blackberry bush and had a feast, and continued to wander around the town and its outskirts thinking about how some spaces held similarities to home. I did not do this with any particularly revolutionary intent, but in hindsight realised I had undertaken a dérive; an aimless wander aimed at studying the effect of the environment on the psyche.

The dérive is a far more challenging activity now than it was at the time of its conception. While walking was a common activity in 1950s Paris, it has become an increasingly obsolete form of transportation. London’s immensity and fast-paced movement encourages the use of the quickest form of transport available, walking to a destination that is more than an hour away is seen as an oddity.

As Will Self famously explores through his unlikely walks to airports through barren deserts or busy motorways, walking to certain destinations is becoming increasingly complicated. Entire routes are designed exclusively for motor vehicles, assuming nobody will ever need to walk from one point to the other.

The wide availability of GPS navigation has consolidated the strife for purpose-fuelled movement. Alternative route possibilities are completely disregarded in name of the most efficient one. Our journeys are being increasingly transferred from reality into the virtual world; you are, for the duration of the journey, suspended from your immediate reality. This disassociation is similar to jumping on a plane, where you sit and distract yourself from the fact that you are moving through space, and then arrive at your destination.

Every aspect from our lives is being directed towards this idea of purposefulness. The concept of indoor gyms, for example, is designed to maximise the benefits of physical exercise in a shorter, albeit less enjoyable, period of time. Locking yourself in a room and lifting heavy pieces of metal before commuting to your office job is framed into the idyllic contemporary healthy life-style. Coincidentally, anxiety and depression are steadily on the rise.

It would be unreasonable to suggest that the dérive is the solution to mental health issues, but so much of what causes anxiety in our contemporary society can be eased through movement. Olga Tokarczuk states in her fragmentary novel Flights, “a thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest; that change will always be a nobler thing than permanence; that that which is static will degenerate and decay, turn to ash, while that which is in motion is able to last for all eternity”. I expand this idea by stating that mechanical motion, commuting, won’t suffice— you must be deliberate in your actions.

“I can only meditate when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs”.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions, 1782

Bruce Chatwin’s novel Songlines beautifully explores the Australian Aboriginal mythology, which lyrically maps the continent’s topography, creating a mythic map that connects culture with place. By singing the song which maps a specific route, one is able to traverse vast distances.  On the opposite side of the globe, Inuit’s remarkable geographic knowledge allows them to navigate lands with equal lack of topographical features. Travel orientation is prioritised as one of the most important means to survival.

The correlation seems clear; the easier something becomes, the worst we get at it. The need for orientation is becoming increasingly null, and with it our capabilities. We can find ourselves completely lost in the city we live, only a few streets down from the path we usually take. Perhaps we should hark back to our origins to realise how important our connection with the physical world is and remind ourselves that we are, after all, animals.

The dérive, in whichever way you decide to undertake it, can be a source of all this introspective knowledge that is currently camouflaged by our capitalist reality. The purposelessness of the act shifts our understanding of our environment, which is otherwise concealed behind the lens of commodity fetishism. Consumption is not only the root of our hyper-productive mentality but itself is a form of productivity. Refusing to consume means refusing to participate in society and is as equally ostracised as refusing to work.

Some critics such as Dawn Foster have made contemporary psychogeography a particularly female action by arguing that women suffer from the social obligation of efficiency more so than men. Furthermore, wandering the streets has distinct implications for women and non-cis individuals who to this day suffer from routine verbal harassment and constant fear of physical violence. Some women may feel empowered by the act of taking up physical space or transgressing their role as the ‘supermother’. The effect of the dérive can vary for different groups of society, making it an intensely personal experiment, but is by no means exclusive.

Despite the rise automation and artificiality, we remain human beings intensely affected by our physical environment. Without understanding how our surroundings affect our behaviour, we become increasingly disconnected from ourselves and from everybody around us, mindlessly buying into what is being sold to us as progress. Through the continued assessment of how our surroundings affect our psyche and instil our awareness of the city, psychogeography can be a key factor in the transformation of social and personal consciousness.

Words by Anna Aguilar.

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Picasso Portraits: Humour is Key

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The exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery differs from William Rubin’s one on Picasso’s portraits twenty years ago at MOMA by defining Picasso’s portraits more tightly.  Picasso’s incorporation of his circumstances and surroundings in his art led Rubin to include art in which the present show’s curator, Elizabeth Cowling, feels he was addressing other themes than that of pure portraiture – the theme of artist and his model, for example, addressed in the Vollard Suite.  While both artist and model are often identifiable, Cowling argues, these works are not portraits per se.  However, she adds an element that Rubin did not: caricature. Humour, she says, is key and seen throughout.  Never vicious, his parodies do not trivialise, his subjects are not victims.

Chronological in order, the exhibition covers the artist’s entire career and begins by showing how Picasso, the breaker of rules, had a very traditional training.  His early efforts were overseen by his father who guided his son’s early attempts at salon-scale genre scenes.  Moral and sentimental in nature, they had the effect on his portraiture that, as Cowling says, “he grasped early on the importance of evoking a state of mind as well as describing a physical appearance”.  This is clearly apparent in images of his father who was subject to depression.

With a room filled with self-portraits, Self-portrait with Wig shows him explore how costume changed character.  Yet these and other early portraits make clear that producing a likeness of the artist came easily.  Cowling found no preparatory studies showing him struggling to achieve it.  She did, however, find trials scattered over sheets of sketches that showed him struggling to master the art of caricature, to grasp the core of a personality, distil it and portray it into a few, firm lines.  What this struggle taught him, as this exhibition makes clear, gave Picasso a skill that informed his lifelong practice.

Launching his career among Barcelona’s avant-garde, his eye for caricature lighted mainly on his male friends and he directed it at insiders of the circle frequenting Els Quatre Gats.  Many of the works, like that of Santiago Rusiñol, are minute masterpieces of the genre.  It is here we have a first glimpse of his lifelong friend Jaime Sabartés, the butt of many jokes, here depicted as a Decadent Poet.

From 1900 on Picasso began visiting Paris, settling there permanently in 1904.  These travels gave rise to humorous works that parodied himself and his friends, their ambitions and activities.  One shows the artist as a grinning, scratching monkey, paintbrush tucked behind his ear.  Again, the Picasso and Sebastià Junyer I Vidal series portray the group’s journey to the art capital – comic strip style – with Junyer selling his work to Durand-Ruel, the famous impressionist dealer, and ‘collecting the dough’!

Fig. 5: Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) Portrait of Sebastià Junyer i Vidal, 1903 Oil on canvas, 49-3/4 x 37 inches
Fig. 5: Pablo Picasso (1881–1973)
Portrait of Sebastià Junyer i Vidal, 1903
Oil on canvas, 49-3/4 x 37 inches

This period also saw Picasso experiment with a number of other artists’ styles including Van Gogh, Gauguin, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec.  His two portraits from this period of Gustave Coquiot, a French art critic and writer, and Bibi-la-Purée, an actor turned vagabond and petty thief, both verge on caricature.  Only their faces appear to be in focus, painted carefully and in detail.  The background of the former’s portrait shows a mirror reflection of what Coquiot, known for his risqué stories as much as for his arts and social reportage, leers at beyond the picture frame: a display of lascivious, exotic dancers.  Whereas Picasso used rough strokes to costume Bibi like a circus clown with an overly large floral jacket that match his ruddy cheeks and red lipped grin.

But from 1901 the riotous colour seen in these portraits fades, replaced by blue, giving Picasso’s subjects a sombre air.  His blue period portrait of his friend and target of the previously mentioned series, Sebastià Junyer I Vidal appears cold, alone and hungry.  Despite being seated beside a lady of dubious morality the painting shows none of the joie de vive or sexual promiscuousness of Picasso’s brothel scene caricatures of the de Soto brothers.

With his move to Paris’ Montmartre in 1904, new male friends became the focus of his caricatures, like Guillaume Apollinaire.  But with women it was different.  At that time he did few caricatures of women.  Cowling surmises that it was perhaps a hangover from an old chivalrous code condemning caricaturing women, though not a code Lautrec had adhered to.  However, during the time Picasso lived with his first long term mistress, Fernande Olivier, women began to replace men as his primary subjects.

Yet with Fernande Olivier with Black Mantilla, Picasso’s priority seems less to be truth to appearance than symbolism.  The painting is done using thin, fluid paint that has trickled and dribbled over the surface like a veil of black lace.  She embodies feminine mystery and melancholy and foreshadows images of his first wife, Olga.  This ‘unfinished’ state makes her seem to move, keeps her alive.  Feeling that a ‘finished’ work was inert, Picasso liked the potential, the energy that a ‘provisional’ state had.

Pablo Picasso, Fernande with a Black Mantilla, Paris, 1905–06
Pablo Picasso, Fernande with a Black Mantilla, Paris, 1905–06

The right side of his 1906 bronze bust of Olivier also looks unfinished.  Marks of the sculptor’s knife and figures are evident.  Her right eye is just scratched in, small lumps of clay simply pressed in place form the back of her head, contrasting to her left eye, eyebrow and hairline, which are finely modelled and incised.  Cowling suggests these differing ‘sides’ indicate Olivier’s public and private faces, the “knowable and unknowable aspects of her personality and the shifting moods to which she was prone”.

The bronze is displayed beside a magnificent gouache of Olivier’s head, with a straight Roman nose and the erect bearing of an ancient sculpture, yet the same scraped and scumbled lack of finish.  1906 saw him explore artistic traditions beyond the classical of academia: Egyptian, Etruscan, Romanesque, archaic Greek and Iberian.  Sadly, his 1906 Portrait of Gertrude Stein for which he drew on ancient Iberian art could not be loaned for this show.  It is said, having completed that portrait, Picasso never painted from a posing sitter again.  The many sittings Stein’s portrait involved put paid to that with her powerful and gossipy personality disrupting the power balance between artist and sitter.  Although he preferred not to, Picasso did in fact continue doing portrait drawings from life.  Drawing being quicker, the intrusive power of a sitter was less of a problem.  Kahnweiler certainly posed for his cubist portrait.

Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso 1905- 06
Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso 1905- 06

Picasso’s portraiture decreased with the revolution of cubism and the nude became central to his figure painting.  But he photographed friends in his studio, contrasting the ‘reality’ of the photographed figure against backgrounds of radically primitivist and cubist art.  But Picasso did begin to explore portraiture with cubism.  With Kahnweiler’s portrait we see a revolutionary style but with a conventionally posed sitter.  Surely it was his eye trained for caricature that produced the upright stance, neat line of the moustache and combed hair, precise line of the watch chain and the pill bottles (not a wine bottle), at the dealer’s side – all references to Kahnweiler’s precision and abstemiousness.

After 1910, portraiture virtually disappears from Picasso’s oeuvre until January 1915 when he did drawings of Max Jacob and Ambrose Vollard, referencing Ingres’ exacting, realist style.  By 1917 he had met Jean Cocteau and joined Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe to collaborate on the ballet Parade with Cocteau.  Drawings he did of Cocteau that year and the 1920 series of the composers Igor Stravinsky, Élie Faure and Francis Poulenc show Ingres’ influence and the firm line of the caricaturist’s eye turned on his male friends.  The elimination of unnecessary detail came from his skill as a caricaturist, but it was also in line with modernist portrait photography at the time.

Yet with his engagement to the Ukrainian ballet dancer, Olga Khokhlova, his portraits of her show her as untouchable.  Granted drawings of her derived from group publicity photographs are humorous, depicting elephantine dancers as the very antithesis of Les Sylphides.  His engagement portrait of Olga leaning elegantly across a tapestried chair shows a lifeless and melancholy figure despite the non-finito he used previously to bring images to life.  It contrasts sharply with the photograph he worked from where she appears alert and confident.

The 1923 portrait of Olga is Picasso’s most formal portrait in the grand tradition and won him the Carnegie International Exhibition prize in 1930.  Again, she is distant, her mind on other, sadder things.  A serious injury to her right foot at the time of her marriage ended her dancing career, and we now know news from her family, on the losing side of the Russian Revolution, gave her much anxiety.  But home movies show Olga as much more animated than the one Picasso depicted. This Picasso controlled her image.  With the acrimonious breakdown of their marriage, his eye for caricature returned with a vengeance. Olga in a Hat captures the spirited being of the photograph and film despite its non-realist style much more than realist styled ones.

Woman in a Hat (Olga) by Pablo Picasso, 1935. Photograph: © Succession Picasso/DACS London
Woman in a Hat (Olga) by Pablo Picasso, 1935. Photograph: © Succession Picasso/DACS London

From the mid-1920s to the Liberation of France in 1944, women dominated Picasso’s imagery. His depictions of Marie-Thérèse Walter are strikingly different.  They evoke complexity, and as Cowling puts it, “the longer and better Picasso knew her, the older and more experienced she grew, the more she eluded a consistent representational formula”.  For Picasso, women could represent the human condition in ways men did not.  He used women to convey the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War.

With the graphic portraits he made of Walter, Nusch Éluard and Dora Maar, each were given graphic styles to show his vision of them.  Thus the slender, delicate body of Nusch, the one time travelling acrobat, is represented in light veils of charcoal, giving her the transparency of glass.  Even the tight pen-stroke curls of her hair contrast to the heftier oil and wax crayon he used for Woman with Joined Hands (Marie-Thérèse Walter) or the strident ink, gouache and oil for Dora Maar Seated.

Now, as in his Portrait of Lee Miller, women were not spared Picasso’s analysing eye born of the caricaturist.  Of course, Picasso did not stop having male friends but it is Jaime Sabartés, who returned from South America in the mid-1930s, re-entering Picasso’s life, becoming his secretary and companion, who we see most of.  Unlike the somewhat stiff portrait Picasso did in 1904 on Sabartés’ departure for the Americas, when they had no idea if they would meet again, on his return Picasso used his friend to refer to their shared Spanish heritage, depicting him in ruff and cap as in the age of Philip II.  Despite the twisted form Picasso gave him it is undoubtedly Sabartés and he would come to be the butt of a great deal of humorous and licentious pieces.

After the Second World War, most of Picasso’s portraits depict his lovers, Françoise Gilot, his children, and his second wife Jacqueline Roque.  His lithographic portrait of Gilot, with its ‘sign language’ originating in Cubism, refers to Velázquez.  His depiction of Jacqueline in Woman by a Window has different styles on the right and left that draw attention to the painting process and, consequently, to the passage of time.  Increasingly he looked to the Old Masters and their followers whom, in his mind at least, were now his friends: Degas, Rembrandt, El Greco.  He battled with Velázquez’s most famous group portrait, Las Meninas, producing over fifty different versions.  Still his comic verve did not desert him, be it in the cross-eyed depiction of the Infanta Margarita Maria, substituting his dachshund, Lump, from the royal mastiff, or the photomontage of Las Meninas that included himself and Sabartés.

But the exhibition ends without humour with Picasso’s Self-portrait, made ten months before he died.  It is a devastating likeness with the strange, right angled absence giving his skull an absence of much more: of memory and of life.

By Clare Finn


The exhibition runs until 5 February 2017 at the National Portrait Gallery, London. It then transfers to the Museu Picasso, Barcelona from 17 March to 25 June 2017.

Picasso Sculptures at Musée National Picasso-Paris

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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


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Pablo Picasso Nature morte : buste, coupe et palette Boisgeloup, 1932 Huile sur toile, © RMN-Grand Palais/ Jean-Gilles Berizzi © Succession Picasso 2016 4 096 x 5 444 px (~63 MB) 34,6 x 46 cm (300 dpi)

Picasso Sculptures
BOZAR, Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels
October 26 – March 5 2017

 

 

 

 

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