Keep pace with Picasso

An exhibition at the Israel Museum is a fascinating spread that offers a fresh angle on the Spaniard’s evolution as an artist and man.

A portrait of Pablo PIcasso in 1908 (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
A portrait of Pablo PIcasso in 1908
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
Has anyone, genuinely, challenged Pablo Picasso’s right to be called a genius? Yes, we all have our tastes and our stylistic and aesthetic preferences, but the Spanish artist must rank up there with the greats of the entire continuum of human creation. And just in case you have any lingering doubts about his ability to produce works of the highest caliber, with sparkling insight, intrigue, comic intent and some dark designs too, I suggest you hot-foot it over to the Israel Museum, where the aptly named “Pablo Picasso – Drawing Inspiration” exhibition is currently in progress.
It is a fascinating spread and offers a fresh angle on the Spaniard’s evolution as an artist and as a man. In the latter respect, he was as dynamic as they come, and went through quite a few wives and/or lovers during the course of his long life. That also features in the exhibition, with portraits of – or figures inspired by – his femme du jour dotted through the show.
There are few works that the casual Picasso follower would recognize. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that there is just one of that ilk, The Girl with the Mandolin, which Picasso made in 1910 when he was 28 years old. That may be young by normal standards but, as “Drawing Inspiration” clearly demonstrates, Picasso was well into his creative stride even before that.
The exhibition predominantly comprises Picasso’s graphic work. Luckily, the Israel Museum owns in excess of 800 drawings and prints by the Spaniard, who spent the vast majority of his life living in France.
He was a staunch leftie, and politics comes into his oeuvre from time to time. There is, for example, the exquisitely crafted The Dream and Lie of Franco, which Picasso produced in 1937, at the height of the Spanish Civil War. All told, there are 18 images spread over two sheets of paper, and it is the artist’s first overtly political work.
In it he ridicules and castigates the Spanish fascist leader in the 14 figures of the first work created in January 1937. The second sheet, which contains four female figures and was created five months later, shows the pain caused by war. The latter were to provide the inspiration for Picasso’s fabled anti-war painting Guernica made shortly after the second installment of The Dream and Lie of Franco.
THE EXHIBITION begins with entertaining video footage of the artist in a niche, one of whose walls is adorned by monochrome stills of Picasso taken across the years by various leading photographers.
“The exhibition consists of around 300 works from our collection, plus 15 loaned works from three major museums,” explains curator Tanya Sirakovich.
“The idea was to exhibit Picasso, on the other hand, in chronological form - the earliest work here is from 1904, and the latest is from 1970.”
That is pretty comprehensive.
“Basically,” Sirakovich goes on, “we have works here from throughout his working life, from the Blue Period to his Rose Period, from cubism to surrealism, and to neoclassicism. The other line is the subjects and motifs he used from the outset, such as bullfights, his women and the Minotaur, as well as studio works and models.”
Sirakovich notes that the Israel Museum is uniquely well equipped to put on such a show.
“We were very fortunate in that, in the 1970s, George Bloch gave us over 350 Picasso prints,” she explains.
Bloch was a longtime benefactor of Picasso, and many of the works he donated to the museum are first prints.
“He was the person behind the first catalogue of Picasso prints,” Sirakovich continues. “He was a collector, and he was a very good friend of Picasso.”
The other major source of the works currently on display was Ambroise Vollard, one of the most important dealers, collectors and publishers of French contemporary art at the beginning of the 20th century.
Vollard supported quite a few artists who were later to take on iconic status, including not only Picasso, but Renoir, Cézanne and Gauguin.
A series of precious Picasso prints and drawings found their way to the museum in 1977 when New York collector Isidore M. Cohen donated Picasso’s entire Vollard Suite. Considered by many to be one of the most important series of prints created in the 20th century, it is now available for viewing.
It is fascinating to traverse Picasso’s working life as you progress through the display halls.
The earliest works, dating from his Blue Period, show him to be a young artist of prodigious talent, but also of great daring. The 1904 etching The Frugal Repast, for example, which forms part of the Saltimbanques Suite, displays the 20-something’s fascination with society’s down and out. There is a sense of cold reality in these works, which is succeeded by his Rose Period output, which sees the young man adopt a more compassionate, more tender approach to his subjects. It is difficult not to feel empathy for the gaunt and seemingly hopeless man and woman portrayed in The Frugal Repast.
Walking past the works, one is struck by Picasso’s impressive ability to go with the flow and by his constant rapid progress toward uncharted waters. He soon becomes enamored with African art, wherein the seeds of cubism are safely sown. His 1907 Head of a Sleeping Woman clearly shows a predilection for geometric shapes, and the incisions characteristic of African works resonate here through the artist’s hatch marks.
And so we progress through to analytic cubism, developed by Picasso together with Georges Braque between 1908 and 1910, in which the artists conceived a revolutionary means for depicting space and volume. The Girl with the Mandolin is a prime example of that school of thought, as is the 1912 male version, Man with a Mandolin, graphite-on-paper work.
The compositional plot thickens with the subsequent synthetic cubism, as exemplified by Glass, Bottle of Bass, Newspaper from 1914. Picasso displays a fondness for word play, with JOU referencing both the French word for playing (jouer) and part of the name of the then-Paris daily Le Journal. We are also offered a mind-boggling angle on perspective as Picasso shows us the mouth of the titular bottle of beer, face on, on the same plane as the front of the bottle.
As Picasso motifs go, the Minotaur, the mythological half-man, half-bull, is one of his most enduring, and appears repeatedly in the exhibition. The legendary creature reaches its pinnacle in the artist’s oeuvre in the striking 1935 etching Minotauramachy, which combines the Minotaur with the ambiance of the bullfight.
The work feeds off all manner of themes and sensibilities, including the artist’s then-lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, and the Minotaur as Picasso’s alter ego.
THERE APPEARS to be almost no style, discipline or format that escaped Picasso’s nimble fingers and expansive mind. There are oil paintings, etchings, work-intensive dry-point creations, color lithographs and linoleum cuts, to mention but a few.
Perhaps his greatest creative tour de force is saved for the latter stages of the exhibition, and of his life. The section goes by the name of Suite 347, corresponding to the number of plates Picasso began in March 1968, when he was 86 years old, and completed in less than seven months.
The works give the impression of having been made by a man possessed – as Picasso no doubt was at the time. It is as if he was driven to achieve figurative and emotional closure, as his powers waned, as portrayed at various stations in his long stint on terra firma, with circus scenes, bullfights, painters and models, and some steamy eroticism thrown in for good measure.
There’s ne’er a dull moment in “Pablo Picasso – Drawing Inspiration,” which will run until November 19.