PICASSO Black and White
On ViewGuggenheim Museum
October 5, 2012 – January 23, 2013
Picasso Black and White is the first exhibit to explore the master draftsman’s use of black-and-white tones throughout his prolific career. Comprised of 118 paintings, sculptures and works on paper, this chronological show has a large number of masterpieces, as well as 38 rarely- and five never-before-seen works borrowed from family and private collections.
“Color weakens,” said Picasso, purging it from his art in order to highlight structure and autonomy of form. He did use some hues of ocher, brown and occasional gold/yellow backgrounds, but those lines of faint color do not interfere with the focus of these terrific pieces, ranging through all of his periods, from 1904 to 1971.
The show begins on a melancholy note with the expressionistic masterpiece, “Woman Ironing” (1904), a quintessential image of travail and fatigue, a bluish-tinted painting made at the end of the artist’s Blue Period. Picasso endows his subject with attenuated proportions and angular soft contours, revealing a distinct stylistic debt to the delicate, elongated forms of El Greco. Never simply a chronicler of empirical facts, Picasso here imbued his subject with a poetic, almost spiritual presence, making her a metaphor for the misfortunes of the working poor.
“The recurrent motif of black, white and gray,” says curator Carmen Giménez, “is evident in his Blue and Rose periods, pioneering investigations into the form of cubism, neoclassical figurative paintings, and retorts to Surrealism. Even in his later works, depicting the atrocities of war, allegorical still-lifes, vivid interpretations of art-historical masterpieces, and his sensual canvases created during his twilight years, he continued to apply a reduction of color.”
Here we rediscover Picasso’s sheer depth. There are hundreds of “shades of gray” in his works; his use of black and white extends beyond the usual cannons of a painter. He was obsessed with lines and forms, in effect visually re-translating El Greco, Francisco de Goya, Diego Velasquez to name just a few of his favorite artists who he repainted in his own manner such as: “The Maids of Honor” (Las Meninas, after Velázquez, 1957), a “caricatured version” of the masterpiece in gray tones, on loan from the Museu Picasso, Barcelona.
The High Gallery is filled with four sculptures, a bas-relief and a “Study for Sculpture of a Head: Marie-Thérèse,” (charcoal on canvas, 1932), next to the cast called “Head of a Woman: Marie-Thérèse” (1941). A succession of women and his own sexual rage were central to Picasso’s life and work, and here climbing the Guggenheim ramp we encounter portraits of Olga Khokhlova (a dancer and his first wife), Nusch Éluard (wife of the poet Paul Éluard), Ines Sasier (muse, cook, and confidant) and many others. Indeed, more than half of the items on display in this show are identified as “women, nudes or female figures.”
These works share a somber air of loneliness, with architectural surroundings that are bleak and confining. Picasso’s palette is stripped down to a sensually deprived range of grays, and this dim illumination casts a cover of night over the nudes. The perfect example of this mood is “Still Life with Blood Sausage” (1941), produced in occupied Paris. Its altar-like composition depicts a wartime meal under a hanging light with a knife and sausage-like intestine invoking sacrifice.
To encounter each work is to make a personal, introspective connection with the artist. “Horne Head: The Minotaur” (1958) is not just a mere symbol here, but a human being, maybe Picasso himself, who confronts the viewer with a raw and rough aggressiveness laced with erotic narrative.
Picasso completed “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” in 1907 and which, along with the work of Georges Braque, led to the first stages of Cubism’s development as the two friends engaged in a daily pictorial dialogue that lasted until the eve of World War I. In 1909, Picasso traveled to Horta de Ebro, Spain, where he created his first analytic Cubist art, defined as the reproduction of an image as seen from different angles simultaneously, both landscapes and portraits. His “Female Nude” (1910) and “Accordionist” (1911) are examples of this style. Both works dissolve into monochromatic fragments and facets, emphasizing form and structure, and create animated grids of dark and light where color has become less prominent. Soon after, Picasso developed synthetic cubism, where observational elements were synthesized into semi-abstract compositions, often including collage or text, incorporating elements of collage and paper into works such as “Bottle and Wine Glass” (1912 – 13).
Some of the paintings appear as fragmented shapes in which color has been reduced to multiple shades of gray. Picasso rendered 45 sketches for “Guernica” (1937) between May 1 and June 4, 1937, several of which are currently on view, including “The Head of a Horse” (oil on canvas, 1937), a compositional study for his famous painting featuring an upturned animal head baring teeth and tongue as if a monstrous cry has just escaped its mouth. The study for the central figure in this mural is one of my favorites. Picasso’s horse jerks its knife-like tongue out in defiance against the Nazi warplanes of the Condor Legion that bombed and destroyed the Basque town of 7,000 inhabitants, killing and wounding almost half of the population.
Picasso once said to Françoise Gilot, his lover, muse and the mother of Claude and Paloma: You could take the red away, and there would always be the painting.” This seems true. The last work up the ramp is his masterpiece, “The Kiss”(1969), with its three-dimensional quality that contributes to the couple’s powerful presence; here he reveals his overt masculinity and sexuality that completes and defines the exhibit with a loud bang. Picasso also said that “Museums are just a lot of lies, but this show has a new and revealing story.
Picasso cast a long and domineering shadow across the landscape of 20th century art with his black-and-white paintings. Some critics labeled them as “colorless,” others dubbed them of “minimal palette,” yet others “monochromatic” or a “reduction of colors,” but no smart adjective or combination thereof is appropriate in his case. Picasso’s hand seemed to succeed at everything it touched. Only pure abstraction is absent in his works. As a graphic artist and draftsman, he dominated the disciplines of sculpture, drawings, and painting with equal ease, in classic form or free expression, creating unlimited possibilities with a so-called “limited” palette.
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