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Essay | Personal Feeling is the Main Thing by Sue Hubbard

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Big blonde in Red Dress (2012) by Chantal Joffe, taken from the Victoria Miro website

By Sue Hubbard

I have long been interested in the work of Chantal Joffe and have written about her on several occasions. Her figurative paintings of family and friends are rooted in a gritty, observed reality which makes her unusual in an art world full of insouciant irony. She’s interested in people, their inner landscapes and what makes them tick. She’s also interested in the materiality and language of paint which she uses with verve and vitality. She’s obsessed with what paint can be made to do and what it can tell us.

There are many influences to her work. The American artist Alice Neel. Renaissance portraits of the Madonna and child. But there’s one influence that connects us directly, as writer and artist – the little-known German painter, Paula Modershon-Becker (1876-1907). There is a self-portrait of Paula in the Courtauld but you’d be hard pressed to see any more of her work in this country. Most of it is in Germany. Joffe’s new exhibition at The Lowry, which uses a quote from Modersohn-Becker as its title is, in many ways, a homage.

“Paula is a bubble between two centuries”, Joffe tells me.

In 2012, I wrote Girl in White, a novel based on Modersohn-Becker’s relationships with those she met when she settled in Worspwede, a remote artists’ colony on the North German moors. There, she mixed with others who wanted to live a life dedicated to art outside the strictures of 19th century German bourgeois society. These people included the older painter Otto Modersohn, who was to become her husband, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, with whom she had a passionate friendship, and the sculptor Clara Westhoff, who, disastrously, became Rilke’s wife.

Dan Eating a Banana by Chantal Joffe (2012) taken from the Victoria Miro website.

The Worpswede colony was very much part of the mood-music among late 19th century European artists who wanted to ‘return’ to nature. Essentially a Romantic movement, this nostalgia for a prelapsarian existence was precipitated by the growth of industrialisation and the effects of urban modernisation. Many believed these were destroying their relationship with the landscape and their folk traditions. When Paula arrived in Worpswede she too initially painted landscape but, as she grew intellectually, emotionally and artistically, she developed a different agenda. Her subject became people. She painted the old in the local poorhouse, breast-feeding women and the children of peasants with an empathy close to that of Van Gogh’s. It’s hard for us to realise just how radical such a decision was, especially by a young middle-class girl. Paula sought out the raw, the authentic and the marginalised in a way that was completely modern. There wasn’t a smack of the drawing-room sentiment anywhere to be seen. 

Talking to Chantal in her studio, on the battered sofa among postcards of Paula’s work and her own half-finished paintings, it becomes more and more evident that our interests overlap. We’re both mothers and creative women who, like many others including Paula, have struggled to find a balance between home, art, motherhood and career and, for whom, the intimacy of everyday life is central to our work. Though separated by more than 100 years, Paula’s intensity of vision and her commitment to the fullness of life, as an artist and a woman, reverberates throughout Joffe’s work. Like Freud, Joffe paints those from within a tight circle of family and friends. She not so much produces portraits, in the sense of a photographic likeness, but investigations – a sense of what it is like to inhabit the subject’s skin.

Self Portrait with Hand on Hip (2014) by Chantal Joffe taken from Victoria Miro website

“I was”,  she says, “hesitant, mindful of the danger of placing myself alongside such a strong painter. I was worried it’d be seen as a form of self-aggrandisement, but I’m interested in the intimacy Paula creates. Personal feeling is always the main thing. That’s why I love her. There’s never anything unnecessary, nothing extra or extraneous. Only what is needed. The work’s so strong, so modern, so ahead of its time. My decision to go ahead was helped by the fact that she’s poorly known here and that maybe, through this exhibition, her work will become more celebrated. She’s just so good.”

I ask why she chose Paula and she says that she was attracted to a painter she’ d never seen before – a woman who was both tough and romantic, vulnerable yet determined. She loves the works of Picasso and Bonnard but here was a painter she could relate to directly and in a very personal way. She wanted to explore what they shared. Her paintings, like Paula’s, are intimate and domestic. She’s painted fellow artists, such as Ishbel Myerscough, and charted the passage of her daughter Esme from new-born infant to adolescent, with many of the blips along the way. These works map the passing of time, the minute changes that occur day to day within emotional connections and bonds.

As we sit talking, with our tea and biscuits, about our mutual concerns – just as Paula did with her friend Clara in her Worpswede studio – it strikes me how similar Joffe looks like Modersohn-Becker. She has the same broad intelligent face, pulled-back hair and snub nose. I tell her my thoughts and she blushes. Of course, she has seen this herself, though she does not admit it. It’s there in her Self-Portrait as Paula II where she looks inscrutably over her shoulder with her back naked to the viewer. Self-Portrait at 21, with its Matisse-style patterned robe, echoes something of the background of Paula’s Self-Portrait on the Sixth Wedding Day.

Mother and Child II (2012) by Chantal Joffe taken from the Victoria Miro website.

Paula Modersohn-Becker had an uncanny sense that she was going to die young. Her quest, at the century’s turn, was ‘to become something.’ Her whole life was a struggle between the binaries of domesticity and artistic fulfilment, duty and self-determination, the security of home and the stimulation of adventure and new experience. She longed for a child. She would paint herself holding her stomach as if she were in a phantom pregnancy. She would then claim that she was actually pregnant with art. Despite Modersohn-Becker’s bourgeois upbringing, she had a restless sensuality which is mirrored in Joffe’s work. You can see it in her unsparing nude self-portraits that show her, for example, sitting naked on a striped chaise lounge. There’s nothing romantic about the dark circles under her eyes, her sagging breasts and stomach and the unflattering long black socks – the only things she wears. And, there is nothing flattering about the ¾ Length Self-Portrait where she stands against a barren, leafless tree like some menopausal Eve. There are also a number of paintings of pregnant women and women with children, and there’s an especial poignancy to those of her daughter, Esme, when we know that Paula died tragically at the age of 32 from an embolism – only weeks after giving birth to her own daughter, Mathilde.

Paula Modersohn- Becker’s life was brilliant but sadly her career cut short. Her passionate female nudes and portraits of prepubescent girls, which sought for ever-more simplification, are extraordinary, considering that convention demanded she was a wife first and a painter second. Spirited, brave, tender and fierce, Paula understood that ‘personal feeling’ is always the main thing. Fashions in art come and go but there’ll always be a place for what is authentic, for what is true.

It’s as if Joffe, with her broad strokes of expressive and nervy paint, has picked up Paula’s baton and is running with it into the middle of the 21st century.

Chantal Joffe’s artwork exhibition ‘Personal Feeling is the Main Thing’ is running at The Lowry Art Gallery until the 2nd September. You can find out more about the artist here

 

Fiction | The Old Men Who Row Boats by David Joseph

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In Madrid, not far from the great museums that line the streets, old men row boats in the morning hours at Retiro Park. These are old men, but these are small boats. There is no vast sea here, just a man made body of water surrounded by tourists and a stone monument flooded with birds. With the morning light emerging, these men set out in rowboats, leaning back as far as their ageing spines will allow. Across calm waters, the men manoeurvre the oars. They manoeuvre the oars with poise, letting them enter the surface almost silently, propelling the boats backwards without words.

Here, they rent boats by the hour. There are no destinations, just patterned ripples in the water, with the sun rising gently and the early morning joggers circling like vultures. They are old men with the bodies of old men, and rowing offers them physical activity. It allows for their limbs move the way they did years before, and it requires a measure of coordination and strength. It provides the men with just enough work to make them feel as if they are still men, with the virility of men, capable of doing manly things. Alone in a boat, with nothing but their thoughts, oars, perhaps a wind jacket on mornings when the gusts blow stronger, the old men don’t need to rely on anyone else. They are out of the way of the joggers and strollers, and they move unimpeded to their own rhythms, their independence temporarily restored, with knees bent and legs stretched out before them. Javier was one of those men who rowed boats.

Javier lived in a small apartment near the Reina Sofia Museum. The Reina Sofia was a glorious monument to Modern Art, perched just across the way from the Atocha train station in the heart of Madrid. Although there was nothing modern about Javier, he liked to go to the museum, and he liked to go there very often. He liked to go there and ride the modern glass elevator up and walk down the sterile halls until he stood squarely in front of Guernica, Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece.

Javier felt an unspoken bond with Picasso and with Guernica. They shared a lot of time together at the Reina Sofia, but it was more than that. They shared a history of compassion, of understanding. Picasso wasn’t a soldier, but he knew war and he knew pain. Guernica captured the horrors of battle and destruction, and Javier liked to stand in front of the painting, letting the images wash over him, into him. Javier wasn’t a painter, but he had been a soldier, and he knew what it was like to feel the despair that one can only feel in the presence of death, the presence of unnatural death. There was nothing glamorous or glorious about it, and soldiers weren’t so much brave as dutiful in his opinion. He had done his duty and he had seen great loss. Standing in front of Guernica reminded him that Picasso had too, that he wasn’t alone, and that even the greatest atrocities could be beautiful when depicted in art. They were hauntingly beautiful for the manner in which they conveyed a moment in time, and they summoned powerful feelings in those who gazed upon their canvases. Guernica was such a painting, and people young and old, from all over the world, came to the museum to see it.

One of the things Javier liked about the Guernica exhibit was that small replications of Picasso’s drafts of the painting were lined up on the opposite wall. Here, Javier had the chance to see the sketches and analyze them. Javier thought it was fascinating to consider what Picasso had included in his early drawings, what he chose to omit, and what he decided to add later on. These alterations had fundamentally changed the complexion of the painting. They altered the narrative. Most people only see the finished product, he thought. Few ever obtain a real sense of what it took for the artist to arrive here, on the precipice of greatness. This was the case in nearly every profession. We love or despise the shell, the veneer, the facade, with very little knowledge of what sits beneath, the underbelly, where the substantive quality often lies.

Most people walked into the room at the Reina Sofia unaware of the drawings on the opposite wall. They walked in and were, understandably, overwhelmed by the massive canvas sweeping across the wall before their eyes. The size and scope of the piece are truly astounding, and it wasn’t unusual to hear people gasp upon seeing it for the first time. The painting literally took their breath away. It was that magnificent, a remarkable tour de force of emotion and power and possibility, and Javier always enjoyed being in the same room as the great painting.

And yet, he often found himself standing with his back to the canvas and to the crowds, as he gazed upon the sequence of drawings that had brought Guernica to its eventual conclusion, its inevitable conclusion. He was curious about Picasso’s thought process, his experiments with different images, and what ultimately brought him to this most terrifying conclusion that would be the finished piece. It seemed unfathomable that Picasso could draw in a manner that was both childlike and spare and still find ways to illuminate the absolute terror that people felt, innocent people, who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. The painting captured an element of fate, but the drawings revealed that this piece was, although well conceived, born from raw emotion, from reaction, and only later did it become a more appropriately detached response to the day the village was bombed. Javier was continually struck by the distance between the first sketch and the original, and he envied Picasso’s ability to go back, remove things, and reshape the narrative. War didn’t allow you to do that. It was final and unforgiving and there were no second drafts or revisions.

Javier had been in the Navy. He liked the water, and he enjoyed working on ships. Being on the water made him feel like the world was endless, adrift in the vast, blue sea, completely aware of his infinitesimal place in the universe. This was where Javier felt most comfortable. He didn’t fear the sea, the way it could rear its head at any moment. He embraced it. Whenever he was caught in a storm, he felt an uncommon sense of calm. The boat wasn’t likely to sink. You just needed to ride it out and move through the ups and downs. Sometimes, you were tossed clear across the deck and other times you just rolled gently over modest undulations. Either way, you were a passenger of sorts. The only choice was to accept it, to lean in, and to find a way to let nature know you weren’t ever going to fight her–come what may. Javier could make peace the elements regardless of the consequences. The actions of men were harder to accept.

In the mornings, Javier would leave his small apartment and head for the park. He would stop briefly for a cup of coffee and a tostada with olive oil and fresh, blended tomato. He always stopped at the same place, and they knew his order. He sat calmly and drank his coffee. He liked to drink coffee before he headed for the boat. It warmed the insides of his body, and it reminded him of those days when he needed to be prepared for a brisk wind out on the open seas. The coffee was good here, and the people who worked there were always agreeable. He sat near the window, looking out at the busy street and dreaming of the open seas while cars rushed by.

From there, Javier would walk past the elegant Palace Hotel, where many great dignitaries had stayed, and head past the Ritz and up towards Retiro Park. It was only a slight incline, but he felt it more than he had in his youth. The ground wasn’t like the water, he thought. Although it didn’t move, it provided an element of resistance that he felt in his spine, in the base joints of his knees, and he longed to get inside the boat. Inside the boat, things were easier. The world was less complicated, and even his body responded in a way that seemed to forget how old it was.

These rowboats were primarily rented by tourists, usually later in the day, perhaps with their children, when the sun was high in the sky and a warm glow eased over the water. Javier liked to arrive before the day took flight, and he was always the first man through the turnstile. He was the first man through the turnstile, and he was always alone. He had spent years on boats with men, many of who were now dead. He had liked the camaraderie then, but now he liked to be alone in the boat. He was nearly always alone, and this was comfortable for him. He never married, and he had no children. He was alone, but he wasn’t lonely. They weren’t the same at all, he thought, and he liked to take to the water with only himself in the boat. There would be nobody else to take care of or instruct. There would be nobody who required he make idle conversation, and Javier could simply sit down in the boat, grab the oars, take a deep breath, and propel his small craft backwards across the man-made body of water.

On his way home from the park, he would often eat lunch near the museum and stop in to see Guernica in the early afternoon. This was a nice time of day to see the painting, and Javier liked to go to the Reina Sofia when fewer tourists were there. He liked that it was near his apartment, and he liked that it was bright and clean. Most off all, Javier liked that Picasso’s Guernica was there. It was an added benefit that he liked one of the docents.

She was slightly younger than Javier, in her early seventies he estimated. She was tall and lean and had let her hair grow grey. Perhaps grey wasn’t the best description. It was silver, after all, with a fresh sheen, and she wore it magnificently. The lines on her face magnified her age, but she carried herself with an elegance that was uncommon. It was uncommon, and her poise was unmistakable. This was only the case in women who had lived to the point where there was nothing left to prove. Javier had searched the world over for a woman like that only to come up empty.

The docent had an air of nobility about her, but it was nobility void of ego and arrogance. She was old enough to have seen her beauty fade, but she was young enough to remember before it had. Still, she glided through the museum halls with a contentment, a knowingness of the past and acceptance of the present that seemed to allow her to age with unusual ease, to smile more willingly, and to say hello with an affection that illustrated how terribly unaffected she was by the passage of time. This quality was incredibly attractive to Javier, and he always looked forward to crossing paths with her on his stops to see Guernica. Javier tried to visit the museum multiple times a week.

In fact, Javier visited the museum so often that it almost seemed as if he was coming by to check on Guernica, to make sure it was still hanging on the wall, that it hadn’t been touched or damaged or moved without his permission. The painting meant a great deal to him, and he felt a sort of ownership over the canvas. He counted on it, needed it, and so he felt compelled to look in on Guernica on a regular basis.

Now that Spain had moved beyond the era of Franco, Guernica served as an important reminder of the past for Javier. He watched the young people in Madrid, and he knew they couldn’t really fathom the Spain of Franco and that the civil war was merely something the learned about in school. They lived with freedoms in the wake of the unimaginable horrors that befell the people of Guernica, who were bombed so savagely and cowardly by Hitler in 1937.

But, to Javier, Guernica wasn’t simply a painting about war or even the Spanish Civil War or even Franco for that matter. It was a painting about the innocent. It was a painting about children who deserve to be safe and protected, about mothers who bring them into the world, and it reflected their vulnerability amidst the savageness of warfare, cold and soulless and without a moral code. It was about pain and fear and unexpected death and destruction. And it was about Spain–the bull and the horse forever linked, intertwined both in the bullring and outside of it, evoking pride and pain in the hearts of Spaniards the country over. Yes. This was his Guernica, his Spain, and stopping by the Reina Sofia made him feel good that he had taken the time to remember these feelings. Spain’s history was important to him, and stopping by the museum allowed Javier to pay his respects to the past.

When Javier climbed into the boat each morning at Retiro Park, the calm of the small body of water astounded him. The stillness of the surrounding trees on all sides. The frozen stone sculptures and steps looming quietly. The day before it became a day, before loss and fear and worry could possibly descend upon it. As he propelled his small boat across the water, a feeling of endless tranquillity poured into his body underneath the rising sun with the air still cool and birds just waking up in the trees. It was a feeling so perfect, so completely in harmony with the universe, that he couldn’t possibly imagine anything in the day ahead that could change it. He couldn’t imagine that the world could ever grow dark, and he thought this must have been how the people of Guernica felt before their village was destroyed. Their little town had no reason to be a target. There was no military base in Guernica, no advantage to be gained by opposing forces except fear and shock and intimidation. Guernica was merely a terrifying message, sent from those in power by way of the dismemberment of the innocent, the limbs of mothers and children blown to bits beneath the endless skies of Basque Country in the north of Spain. Alone in his boat each morning, feeling the beauty of life course through his veins, Javier was not so different from the people of Guernica before the bombings–trusting in his surroundings, comfortable with the beauty his eyes digested, and wholly unaware of what the future held.

When Javier looked at the sketches of Guernica, he couldn’t stop thinking about how the most subtle changes impacted the entire composition. He thought Picasso was a brilliant painter, and he enjoyed contemplating what Picasso might have been thinking as he evolved the piece of art over time. It was a statement, but it was also art, and it seemed the more Picasso detached himself from his first emotions upon hearing the news of the bombing, the more powerful the piece of art became. It offered a more objective viewpoint, and it illustrated some of the cold, hard truths of the worst of humanity–illuminating the impersonal disregard humans could have for one another when they felt justified. Javier liked to look at these small panels. He liked to look at the panels and imagine Picasso in his apartment in Paris when he received the news. He liked to think of the rage and the tears and the transformation of emotion into art, of a moment into the momentous, of helplessness into hope. This is what he saw when he looked at the progression. He saw hope that the artist can only summon through great suffering. Hope that rises, like an arm from the ashes, protruding from the rubble, reaching out as the world crumbles all around. Guernica was, after all, about the prospect of hope, somehow, some way, deep in the future.

Now that Javier was an old man, his future was not nearly as long as his past. He knew this, and he thought about this as he rowed across the serene waters. He thought about this as he watched the sun rise from his boat. And he thought about it each time he said hello to the docent at the Reina Sofia.

It was a crisp fall day. He woke early and rowed as he did each day. On the way back from Retiro Park, Javier walked past the Prado Museum on the way to the Reina Sofia, past the statues of Velázquez and Goya, thinking of the 3rd of May even though it was only October. The Spanish painters knew death, understood death, he thought. Like Velázquez and Goya so many years before him, Picasso knew what it meant to experience fear, to be at the very end, and face the firing squad. He understood the terror one felt when there was nowhere left to run, when your luck had run out, and the wheel was about to stop. Yes, Spanish painters knew this better than anyone he thought, and this was always apparent in their art.

At the Reina Sofia, Javier made his way towards Guernica. When he arrived in the room, there was a crowd of students there, who stood somewhat patiently while the elegant docent spoke to them about the painting. Javier watched as she pointed towards the canvas, the graceful curve of her arm still attractive, and her eyes filled with wonder as she shared her enthusiasm for the work with the students.

When she was finished speaking, she asked the students to take fifteen minutes in the room without saying a word and without glancing at their phones. Fifteen minutes to look and see and hear and feel Guernica, to smell the smoke wafting through the village after the attacks and hear the cries of mothers at the sight of their dead children. The students gazed forward at the wall, as she stepped behind them only to see Javier with his back to the canvas, his eyes travelling across the small sketches of Guernica on the opposite wall.

He just stood there plainly, with his back to the crowd of people, staring at the sketches, in a room with no windows, with the rain now streaming down the glass of the exposed elevators that flanked the building. He just stood there, arms behind his back, bent slightly at the waist, leaning his head closer to try and get a better look. It was then he noticed, out of the corner of his eye, that he wasn’t the only one with his back to the painting. The docent was looking in his direction, with her back to the students and also the painting. For a moment they were the only two people in the room, along with Picasso that is, who would likely have approved. It was nothing more than a coy, knowing smile that a woman can only give when she is older than 70 and knows that time is running out. Javier knew this, and he liked to think he was a man who was always prepared. But he was not prepared for this. He was prepared to row his boat in the mornings alongside other old men, and he was prepared to walk to the Reina Sofia and look at Guernica in the afternoons. But he was not prepared for this. He was not prepared to hope, really hope, not now, at his age. Hope, for a man his age, could only place him on the brink of despair. Even death didn’t summon fear so much as inevitability. Hope was different, and Javier didn’t dare hope, not even here at the Reina Sofia before Guernica where Picasso had spilled his hopes so powerfully across the canvas.

He had been in wars and seen the faces of death and stared blindly into sunsets, but her gaze felt like a hundred pairs of eyes levelling themselves at him, knowing and devastatingly beautiful. He had seen her so many times before and been fine. Although her smile was disarming, it was sweet and he had never been intimidated by it. Moreover, he had always been ready for it, coveted it like the stars or the moon or the sea. Only now it felt different. And he wasn’t sure if it was the painting or the room or the thought that only hours before he had been rowing in the most tranquil waters. Oh those tranquil waters, quiet, where old men in boats set out each morning completely at home and unafraid.

He had no choice but to meet her eyes and stare back into them. There was no averting her glance. They were there, alone in a crowded room, with the students facing Guernica. They were there, just the two of them, with only their thoughts, their considerable years, and days gone by that hung like the cracked, worn edges of his mouth–dry and sick with worry. All he could do in the moment was bow respectfully in her presence, doff his cap, and saunter out of the room, breaking the silence of the students by whistling a tune so old that only the two of them had ever heard it before.

BY DAVID JOSEPH

Picasso: Minotaurs and Matadors at the Gagosian

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PICASSO Minotaure dans une barque sauvant une femme, March 1937, Paris Gagosian

The Minotaur was a key figure in Picasso’s imagination and art, so much so that the artist once remarked that ‘If all the ways I have been along were marked on a map and joined up with a line, it might represent a Minotaur’. Picasso: Minotaurs and Matadors seeks to investigate and illuminate this map, querying what the Minotaur, matadors, and bullfighting meant to Picasso at the various stages of his life through displays of paintings, etchings, ceramics, and sculpture.

Picasso’s affinity with the Minotaur peaked in the 1930s, although the mythological creature would continue to haunt his later imagination. What was it about this part-human, part-animal that so intrigued the artist? It may have been this very duality between human and bestial, although as Picasso pointed out to Françoise Gilet, his later companion, the Minotaur knows that he is a monster. Picasso was not alone in finding inspiration in the prehistoric creature. The Surrealists in particular were drawn to the Minotaur’s sheer force, believing that this vitality ‘allowed them to give free reign to their innermost urges, especially their desire for transgression and sexual liberation’, as Gertje T. Utley notes in her essay in the exhibition’s accompanying compendium.

The exhibition itself opens with a painting from 1958, entitled simply Minotaure. Here, a somewhat friendly-looking Minotaur peers quizzically at the viewer from a canvas of creamy white paint. The piece is an exercise in tonal variation. Charcoal-coloured lines sit upon smudges of grey, white, and cream, and the Minotaur’s face is suspended against its shadowed background. The frontal positioning of the creature, as well as his direct gaze, makes it seem as if the Minotaur is assenting to the portrait, complicit with the artist; perhaps this is also an intimation of the intense connection, or self-identification, that Picasso felt with the Minotaur figure. As Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler comments, ‘Picasso’s Minotaur, carousing, loving, and fighting, is Picasso himself. He is laying himself totally bare, in what he hopes is complete communion’. The quiet mutations of white also suit the hushed atmosphere of the gallery space, which is hung with thick green curtains, the silence interrupted only by shuffling feet and the sound of a video installation in another room.

PICASSO Minotaure caressant du mufle la main d’une dormeuse, June 18 1938, Boisgeloup Gagosian

From the still face of Minotaure, the viewer’s eyes wander to a wooden display table of pencil sketches. The first of these, Minotaure courant, from December 1937,  is full of fierce energy and strong lines. Rather than staring out from the page, this Minotaur is engaged in intensive movement, his legs striding forward, his hands outstretched and grasping empty air. Muscular and strongly-built, the Minotaur’s body casts a ferociously sketched shadow on the ground, while the multiple lines of his body suggest fluidity and motion. Prominence is also given to his genitalia, which are placed in the centre of the page, offset by the creature’s curling tail. It is perhaps worth noting that the French for ‘tail’ is ‘queue’ – a word that can also signify male genitalia – and the phallic connotations of the image are heightened by the Minotaur’s horns. The overall impression is of physical energy and exuberance, with erotic overtones that Picasso delves into more deeply elsewhere. Minotaure assis au poignard is also a strikingly erotic sketch, displayed on the same table, and depicts the Minotaur sitting with a hunched neck, bearing a phallic blade, legs open to expose his rounded genitals.

After the grey tones of Minotaure, and the black-and-white pencil sketches, the first painting featuring colour is particularly striking. Nature morte au Minotaure et à la palette, painted in 1938, is a confident piece with bold, angular shapes and joyful colour. A statue of the Minotaur’s head fills the right side of the painting; to the left is a candle and an artist’s palette. The paintbrushes in the palette point towards the Minotaur, reinforcing the sense of elective affinity between the artist and beast, while the warm, earthy shades of the Minotaur’s head, outlined in black, are suggestive of the black- and red-figure vessels of Attic art. Other works also refer back to antiquity. Le combat dans l’arène, an engraving from 1937, shows the Minotaur armed with a spear and fighting two men in an arena. His animal head marks his difference from his competitors, although his body is strikingly human and he runs on two feet; his grip on a horse’s mane, signifying the pull towards his animal nature, further complicates the division between animal and human that the piece represents.

Scenes of fighting are balanced with images of sleeping women. Nue endormie, from 1932, recalls the white tones of the opening Minotaure, although its charcoal lines are dream-like, as faint and grey as if they had been whispered on to the canvas. The roundness of the woman’s forms – head, breasts, arms, fingers – are contrasted to the one horizontal line in the background. It is as if Picasso has captured the nebulous quality of sleep itself. Femme couchée à la mèche blonde depicts a similar sleeping woman, although the canvas has been doused in colour. Feathery strokes of lilac and green paint gather at the bottom right of the painting, rising to where the woman cradles her head, then turning to red and yellow. The woman’s face, moon-like, has been left white, while the concentrated colour around her head signifies her dreaming.

These women contrast distinctly to the ones in the middle section of the room. A series of etchings, displayed in a cabinet, become more and more graphic as they progress. One, entitled Le Minotaure une coupe à la main, shows the Minotaur’s muscular arm holding a champagne glass and possessively shielding a naked woman from the viewer. She in turn gazes expressionlessly out of the drawing, while the Minotaur also turns towards the viewer, looking faintly satisfied. His reclining position means that his tail is on full show, and the sensual lines of both bodies jar with the hard outline of the window. The Minotaur is no longer outside, in an arena or open space – he has entered the private domain of humankind. Scène bacchique au Minotaure, also from 1933, goes further in its portrayal of excess. The ferociously hairy Minotaur lounges with one arm extended, holding his champagne glass in a toast to male virility and ownership. A smaller man accompanies him, legs spread and fingers delicately holding the stem of a champagne glass. Sprawled between them are two women, one of whom the man clutches with an oversized hand. While the Minotaur and the man look comfortable, leaning back in relaxed positions, the women appear to be flung over them as if they are merely part of the luxurious décor. Later etchings are titled Minotaure aimant une femme and Minotaure et femme faisant l’amour, and show the Minotaur’s violent erotic appetite. While the woman in the former image could be tilted backwards in pleasure, the awkward angle of the woman’s head in the second image, combined with her wide-eyed gaze, suggests distress. Minotaure caressant du muffle la main d’une dormeuse is also a strange work, combining the earlier imagery of sleeping women with that of the Minotaur, who nuzzles the woman’s face with his snout. The heavily-inked head of the Minotaur, with his haunted eyes, suggests the darker side of human (or animal) nature, which is contrasted to the serenity of the sleeping woman. Alone, and seemingly unloved, he is unable to access the woman while she sleeps.

Picasso was also a ‘real bullfight addict’, as the famous bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguín once said, and the exhibition turns its attention to Picasso’s many images of Matadors, picadors, horses, and bulls. Like David Jones, the Anglo-Welsh artist with a precocious talent for drawing animals, Picasso started early. He drew his first bullfight scene when he was just eight years old, and returned to the theme, often in tandem with the myth of the Minotaur, after spending time in Spain in 1933 and 1934. ‘The spirit of the corrida is part of his way of life. He has bulls in his soul. The matadors are his cousins. The arena is his house’, explains Hélène Parmelin. This part of the exhibition is filled with dramatic images of bulls. One particularly striking etching is La femme torero, depicting a female bullfighter. The abundance and busyness of the lines imitates the rapid action depicted as the woman is caught up with the bull and horse, and just as a spectator watching the scene in real life might find it difficult to decipher which body is which, so the viewer’s eyes are caught between the woman, her costume, the horse, and the bull’s rump. Torero, painted in 1971, is another stand-out piece, incorporating luxurious swirls of pistachio green and red paint. The curving shapes and wide brush strokes have a liquidity about them, and the thick oil paint glimmers wetly. Despite these excellent depictions of matadors, it is, as Rafael Alberti reminds us, Picasso who is the ‘best matador who ever existed. His paintbrush is like a sword dipped in the blood of all the colours’. Picasso: Minotaurs and Matadors attests to this.

By Suzannah V. Evans


Picasso: Minotaurs and Matadors at the Gagosian
Gagosian Gallery
28 April – 25 August 2017

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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