Picasso- Five Highlights

December 8, 2011
Michael Sima, "Picasso and Samuel Kootz in Picasso's Studio", Paris, 1947 . Photograph. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Michael Sima, "Picasso and Samuel Kootz in Picasso's Studio", Paris, 1947 . Photograph. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

It is difficult to choose only five works from an exhibition which covers all the major periods in Picasso’s career, from the earliest days, through his Blue and Rose periods, his experiments with Cubism, the neo-classical pictures of the post-war years, his flirtation with Surrealism, and the variations of his later life. Neither should we underestimate Picasso’s contributions to sculpture, print-making and ceramics, which broke all the rules and had revolutionary consequences for the artists that followed. This is a purely subjective selection from dozens of possibilities. One of the surest signs of the artist’s greatness is the inexhaustible nature of his invention – a wellspring deep enough for every viewer to discover their very own Picasso.

The Death of Casagemas (1901)

Pablo Picasso, Death of Casagemas, 1901

Carles Casagemas was Picasso’s boon companion from Barcelona, who came with him to Paris and shared his Bohemian lodgings. While Picasso was away in Spain a love-sick Casegemas committed suicide in a restaurant, after first trying to shoot the woman who had spurned his affections. This small picture, painted in the manner of Van Gogh, is a homage to Picasso’s tragic friend whose death would haunt him for years.

It was not an immediate and straightforward response. Picasso waited six months before painting three small portraits of the dead Casegemas – the one in this exhibition being the best of the group. In the meantime he had an affair with Germaine, the woman for whom Casegemas had shot himself. He also painted an allegorical picture in the manner of El Greco, called The Burial of Casegemas (Evocation) (1901), described by Picasso’s biographer, John Richardson, as “both sacred and blasphemous”.

Picasso’s attitude towards Casegemas was a peculiar mixture of irony and guilt. He mocked his dead friend for his alleged sexual inadequacies and made him a posthumous cuckold, but was quietly traumatised by his loss. He kept the three small portraits and showed them to no-one. It was not until Picasso’s own death that they became known.

“It was thinking about Casegemas’s death that started me painting in blue,” he once said. The guilt and gloom he felt was translated into the distinctive blue tones that would dominate his painting from 1901-1904. This melancholy series would attract the attention of critics and collectors, putting the young Picasso on the road to success.

Still life with pitcher and apples (1919)

Pablo Picasso, Still life with pitcher and apples, 1919

Painted at the end of the Cubist years, this painting has an impressive solidity. It represents a repudiation of the school of academic Cubists that had grown up in Picasso’s shadow, who saw his new works as a betrayal of the movement he and Braque had invented. Picasso, the supreme individualist, had no time for labels, and no need for disciples.

The artist had married the ballerina, Olga Khokhlova the previous year, and was heavily involved with theatre projects for the Russian impresario, Diaghilev. His life was in good shape, and his imagination teeming with ideas.

Picasso had abandoned Cubism partly because of his growing fascination with the artists he studied in the Louvre. Most interesting of all was Ingres, who heavily influenced the line drawings Picasso made at this time. He also admired Corot, and finally, Chardin (1699-1779).

Still life with pitcher and apples is an early example of Picasso’s habit of taking on past masters at their own game, borrowing motifs but effectively reinventing their works to suit himself. He has emulated Chardin’s immaculate sense of composition, adding a sensual dimension that remains latent in the works of his predecessor.

Although this picture is often viewed as an example of Picasso’s return to ‘realism’, it must be one of the most subtly eroticised still lifes ever painted. The apples are reminiscent of breasts and buttocks. The jug is unmistakeably feminine, with a dark, suggestive lip. Even the way the plate of apples rests on top of the pitcher is unsettling, as if the female form was being pressed down by a masculine weight. It is a remarkable testament to the artist’s transformative powers, and his ability to say a lot with the slenderest of means.

Nude in a garden (1934)

Pablo Picasso, Nudes in a Garden, 1934

This work is a celebration of the sensual reawakening that Picasso enjoyed with the youthful Marie-Thérèse Walter, whom he habitually depicts as a collection of soft, curving forms. Despite the graphic nature of the image and the bold distortions of the figure, it is a picture that reveals Picasso as an adoring lover, not the misogynist portrayed in various biographies. It is filled with the wonder of a middle-aged man who finds himself with a teen-aged lover.

In 1934 Picasso was 53 years old, Marie-Thérèse only 24. They had already known each other for seven years but the artist’s interest had not diminished in the slightest. As his relationship with Olga deteriorated he found peace of mind with Marie-Thérèse, whom he often installed at the Chateau de Boisgeloup, a secluded property outside of Paris that he’d acquired in 1930. This work was painted in, or at least inspired by, the garden at the chateau.

Cubist devices had gradually been reappearing in Picasso’s work for over a decade. At this point of his career he would jump between styles as the mood dictated, breaking the body of a model into pieces and reassembling it in various artful ways.

Nude in a garden is an image of sensual abandon and submission, with Marie-Thérèse compressed into a ball of pink flesh, with breasts, genitals and buttocks all on prominent display. The background and base of the work are filled in sketchily, being of merely secondary value. This was a life-long habit for Picasso, who told the photographer, Brassai: “once I’ve expressed something well enough, I don’t have the heart to add anything further to it.”

Cat catching a bird (1939)

Pablo Picasso, Cat catching a bird, 1938

It is tempting to discuss Picasso’s vibrant Portrait of Dora Maar (1937), so very different from all those tortured images of the ‘weeping woman’. However, the exuberance of 1937 would soon disappear. During that year the Nazis opened the notorious Degenerate Art exhibition, while Picasso would paint Guernica for the pavilion of the Spanish Republic at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris.

In 1939 the Second World War began and the youthful Spanish Republic was extinguished. Franco’s forces had swept through Picasso’s home territory of Catalonia with lightning speed during the first two months of the year. Madrid would fall at the end of March.

Although he never took part in any armed conflict, Picasso’s politics were left-wing and staunchly republican. He responded to Franco’s victory with many dark and bitter images, and a profound despondency. Cat catching a bird is his most succinct and fatalistic comment on the fascist takeover in Spain.

The cat, all sharp angles, claws and teeth, is literally tearing the heart from a small bird that flutters in pain. It was the first of a succession of bleak paintings and sculptures that would emerge from the years of the occupation.

In painting the cat with one blind eye, Picasso was repeating a detail that had appeared in his work perhaps since The Celestina of 1904, and certainly in his youthful self-portraits of 1907, which may be seen in this exhibition. There are many interpretations of this motif, as well as attempts to trace it back to the influence of African or Iberian art. It is, at the very least, a sign of duality: reason matched with savagery, light balanced against darkness.

The Goat (1950)

Pablo Picasso, The Goat, 1950

It is easy to forget that Picasso was the first artist to incorporate real objects into his sculptures. As such, he was the forerunner of every modern piece of assemblage, every junk sculpture, every metal construction that contains a recycled iron fitting. He began experimenting in this way during the early Cubist period, but it was a life-long practice. The Goat, made when he was 69 years old, is one of his boldest and most vital three-dimensional constructions.

During the war years Picasso had become adept at using the most unlikely materials and objects as the basis for sculptures. In 1950 he was living in Vallauris, in the south of France, with Francoise Gilot. His studio was close to a yard in which potters threw their discarded materials. Here he found a wicker basket used for the goat’s ribs, two ceramic jugs that formed the udders, and the palm fronds that define the face and spine. Other bits of metal were added to the mix and the entire piece unified with plaster.

There is a lot of humour in this sculpture, and more than a hint of caricature. It is a mark of Picasso’s self-confidence that he was prepared to make such a work at a time when contemporary sculpture was preoccupied with lonely, anguished images of the human condition. For Picasso, the seriousness was all in the making, not the interpretations by others. From the beginning to the end he took risks that other artists simply could not conceive. The Goat bears witness to a bravura that could never be contained.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald Picasso Supplement, 2011