The Seattle Art Museum’s Picasso exhibition is a major event. Although the 20th century’s leading artist is not in the collection of any Northwest museum, Seattle is temporarily Picasso Central. The last American survey show of this ambition and breadth was held in New York in 1980, and the sculpture alone represents a more complete view of the artist’s work than can be seen anywhere else. Picasso being Picasso, the exhibition is also a study in contrasts and contradictions. KUOW's art critic Gary Faigin joins us to discuss the show.
Pablo Picasso is the most problematic of our artistic immortals, explosively inventive, unwilling to adopt a trademark style, and maddeningly contradictory in both his personality and his work. The Musée Picasso’s ambitious traveling retrospective, now on view at the Seattle Art Museum, is as inspiring, perplexing, and intriguing as the artist himself.
The excesses of Picasso’s personality – his cult of the ugly, his lapses into the vulgar or the slapdash, and his toxic attitude towards women – can be a challenge to any extensive viewing of his work. In the current exhibition, such images have plenty of less prickly company. In particular, the generous helpings of exceptional sculptures, works where the artist’s atavistic impulses are held in check, are nothing short of a revelation. Picasso saved his screaming, tortured, and vagina-faced women for his paintings and drawings; the three dimensional work is buoyant, monumental, and a continual pleasure, from the earliest piece in the show (1905) to the latest (1961). If one can hazard a generalization – few artists resist sweeping statements more – the paintings showcase Picasso in combat; the sculptures highlight the artist at play.
It’s no wonder that this particular exhibition makes such a strong case for Picasso’s sculpture; the Musée has the best collection in the world. Picasso’s sculptures were rarely shown or sold until nearly the end of his career, and the artist was content to keep most of them close at hand; nearly two hundred of these (together with truckloads of other important works) went to the state-run Musée in lieu of estate taxes upon the artist’s death.
SAM’s exhibition is at its weakest in the beginning of Picasso’s career, where the artist’s poverty led to his retaining only a handful of his youthful (and still most popular) works. And while the collection itself is too limited to clarify the rapid evolution of Picasso’s style – in effect, the birth of Modern Art - SAM’s hanging of these initial rooms does not help matters by scrambling the chronology and forgoing the usual explanatory texts. Few visitors not already familiar with Picasso’s meteoric progression from Blue to Rose to Demoiselles to Nearly Abstract to Synthetic Cubist will be able to sort things out for themselves, and that’s a shame.
The early sculptures, if viewed in succession, do tell a compelling story. The oldest piece, a fool’s head modeled on Picasso muse and acolyte Max Jacob, is a fitting symbol of the artist’s anecdotal and relatively upbeat Rose period of the early 1900s. Like the single figure painting from that era ("Two Brothers," 1906), it barely hints at the upheavals to come.
As the artist’s painting and drawing becomes more self-consciously primitive, we come upon the unfinished wood sculpture "Figure," 1907, compelling evidence of Picasso’s veneration of Gauguin (similar materials, treatment, and scale) and his African sources. The nearby bronze head "Fernande," 1909, demonstrates the emergence of Picasso’s first truly original style. This modest-sized bust, the artist’s only cubist figure sculpture, was as much a watershed in the three-dimensional world as the Demoiselles was in the two; its disassembling-before-your-eyes dynamism and reinventing of familiar planes showed the way for a generation of young artists of Futurist or Constructivist tendencies. The rebellious sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) was still a going concern, but henceforth his once-controversial work would be considered “pre-modern”.
The Neo-classical phase of Picasso’s journey is commemorated in a lively room of paintings of the late teens and early twenties. In hindsight the chill, society-style portrait of the artist’s then-fiancé Olga presents ample evidence that neither the marriage nor the artist’s belated realist style would stick. Placed anachronistically amidst other neo-conservative works are two fascinating cubist wall constructions, complicated, energetic, and tantalizing us with a sense of pictorial logic independent of ordinary perception. The latter phase of Cubism used flat, recognizable shapes rather than clouds of prismatic shreds, and the tension between what is clearly represented, and what is only suggested (Picasso was a master at conjuring up shadows, voids, and figurative shapes with non-figurative elements) is here particularly intense.
In this same gallery there is a subtle but intriguing call-and-response between the Harlequin costume of Picasso’s toddler son (1924), and the painted diamonds on the sheet metal surrounding the folded metal "Violin," 1915; the artist has here left his calling card, the Harlequin being one of his alter egos.
The sculptures only get better - the very next room contains two landmark works. In the 1920s Picasso, in partnership with Juan Gonzalez, pioneered welded metal sculpture and sculpture by assemblage, two forms of expression we now take for granted.
The mock-African painted figure "Head of a Woman," 1929 is worth the price of admission just on its own. Picasso’s then unheard-of strategy of collecting junk and turning it into art pays off here big time; once you see the substitution of coiled springs for braided hair, it seems so natural that you wonder why it had never occurred to anyone before. The two colanders welded together for a head (the holes are a suggestion of scalp) are a bit less intuitive, but who’s complaining? This creature looks set to party.
Very different indeed is the slightly earlier lines-of-energy wire model for the monument to the dead poet Apollinaire. A literal embodiment of a passage from the author describing a statue made of nothing but “poetry and glory”, this barely-figurative framework (it does have a tiny head and hands) represents one of the many times Picasso makes an artistic breakthrough and then abandons it; like the crazy-quilt "Kiss" painting in the same room, which also represents an avenue (in this case garish, near-abstract figuration) that the artist chose not to pursue.
The climax of the exhibition, and the peak of Picasso’s artistic powers, occurs just past the halfway point of both his life and the show. Picasso was 45 when he met the nymphet of his dreams, Marie-Therese, and the room devoted to the ecstatic permutations of the female form that were inspired by this ultimately tragic affair is nothing short of sensational. It is almost as though the artist could not fully possess the object of his desire until he had reinvented it, passing it through a process where breasts, arms, buttocks, and sexual organs gained a new power by metamorphosis. The body is imagined almost as though for the first time, and no two versions are quite the same; Marie-Therese emerges as a flesh-colored stick figure, a pile of driftwood, a still life, an arrangement of curved, flattened shapes, a smoldering collection of candied arabesques. And that’s just the two-dimensional work.
At the far end of the room, a platform displays all of the major Marie-Therese portrait busts Picasso created at around the same time, and if the occasional phallus substitutes here and there for a nose or an eye, it seems less a perversion than a logical extension of the mood of orgasmic fertility and rebirth.
This sexual and artistic climax would be a tough act for anyone to follow, and if Picasso never surpassed the originality and energy of this mid-life crisis made golden, it is a small wonder. Most observers have noted a serious trailing off in the nearly four decades that follow Picasso’s career-capping 1937 mural "Guernica" (represented here by Dora Maar’s photographs of the work in progress); but everyone has their own list of hits and misses. There are few champions of the Guernica sequel, "Massacre in Korea," 1951, but there are many who make a case for giant painted gargoyles like "Women at their Toilet," 1956, or "Woman on a Pillow," 1969. Given what has come before, I’m not the least moved by these sprawling, sloppy works, but paging through the catalog of the much more inclusive 1980 MOMA retrospective, the late selection could have been far, far worse.
And then there are the late sculptures. Picasso was nearly 80 when he folded some paper and created the neo-cubist sheet metal masterwork "Chair" (1961), following the monumental Bathers group (1956), the hilarious "Goat," 1950, and the famous bicycle seat "Bull’s Head" (1942). If there’s a falling off in the artist’s 3D work as his painting became increasingly bloated and mannered, it’s not visible here. The show is the most important exhibition ever hosted by the Seattle Art Museum, and it’s also a unique opportunity for visitors to discover the least-known aspect of Picasso’s 70-year career, his sculpture.