What comes to mind when you hear the name Pablo Picasso? For many people, it is his famous Cubist paintings, visually memorable because of their fractured and fragmented shapes. The objects in these paintings are broken apart and reassembled in an abstracted manner, resulting in a collage-like effect with geometric forms.
Cubism, pioneered by Picasso and his friend and fellow painter Georges Braque in Paris in the early 20th century, shocked and fascinated the world. This artistic style went on to become one of the most influential visual art styles of this time.
But Picasso, his life and his art, does not start or end with these paintings, as distinctive and memorable as they may be.
In Australia, the National Gallery Of Victoria’s (NGV) Melbourne Winter Masterpieces exhibition, The Picasso Century, shines the spotlight on Picasso and the diverse influences and encounters in his life and work – including Guillaume Apollinaire, Braque, Salvador Dalí, Marie Laurencin, Dora Maar, Andre Masson, Henri Matisse, Dorothea Tanning and Gertrude Stein.
With the “Year of Picasso” initiative recently launched in Europe, this exhibition in Melbourne grabs the headstart in capturing this iconic painter’s spectacular story.
It charts his extraordinary career in dialogue with the many artists, poets and intellectuals with whom he interacted throughout the 20th century, steering him through artistic periods such as his Blue Period, Cubism and Surrealism.
On display at the NGV exhibit, which ends on Oct 9, are over 80 works by Picasso, as well as 100 works by more than 60 of his contemporaries, drawn from French national collections and the NGV Collection.
“The Picasso Century is an incredibly ambitious exhibition, one that we have been working on for 10 years. It offers visitors an extraordinary insight into the development of modern art and the preeminent figure at its centre, Pablo Picasso. Through more than 180 works of art – including many that have never been seen in Australia – audiences will come to appreciate the many ways in which Picasso influenced, and was influenced by, the artistic community that surrounded him,” says NGV director Tony Ellwood AM in a recent interview in Melbourne.
The Picasso Century is exclusively developed for the NGV by the Centre Pompidou and the Musee National Picasso-Paris in France.
Didier Ottinger, exhibition curator and deputy director of the National Museum of Modern Art in the Centre Pompidou, describes this show as one dedicated to not only Picasso, but rather, Picasso in context.
“Picasso is a major figure of the 20th century, he is the genius of the century. I hope the public, through this exhibition, will discover more about Picasso, in a complex, yet subtle way. He truly is a man of his time,” says Ottinger.
Picasso was born in Malaga, Spain, in 1881, into a creative family. His father was a painter who mainly painted still life, landscapes, doves and pigeons. It is said that when Picasso was around 14, his father handed him a paintbrush and asked him to finish a painting that he was struggling to complete, and was impressed by the result.
In 1900, Picasso moved to Paris, setting up his studio in Montmartre and embarking on his Blue Period works. Among these artworks is his Portrait Of A Man, one of the many hundreds of such melancholic figures he sketched and painted during these few years.
Picasso kept this piece in his personal collection, deliberately maintaining its incomplete state. There is a sense of mystery with this artwork, in that he never named the man, choosing only to say that the model is “a kind of madman who roamed the streets” and that “everyone knew him in Barcelona”.
While this man’s identity remains uncertain, his defeated bearing and weariness suggest he belongs in the working-class districts of Paris or in Barcelona’s notorious Barrio Chino.
The Picasso Century at NGV is divided into 12 thematic sections which trace the distinct periods that shaped Picasso’s career over more than seven decades, while also situating his work within a broader artistic and geographical context.
For instance, in the 20th century, change was in the air and the excitement was palpable to young artists such as Picasso and his friend and kindred spirit, Braque. Their painterly experimentation, where dissected forms and fragmented planes took the place of traditional visual devices such as linear perspective, led to the creation of Cubism.
After World War I, the Surrealist movement, which in visual art focused on tapping into the unconscious mind for dream-like scenes and symbolism, started to flourish in Europe. Picasso declined to formally join the movement, but the affinities between the artist and Surrealists are many.
A number of paintings from Picasso’s Surrealist period, intertwined with his fantasies and subconscious desires, are presented alongside works by artists from this time such as Andre Breton, Tanning, Kay Sage, Stein, Max Ernst and Dali.
The Spanish Civil War in 1936 and World War II three years later, clearly influenced Picasso’s art. Even if he wasn’t known for painting war scenes, he often employed metaphorical and allegorical means to reflect on the human condition during these difficult times.
A section of the exhibition presents selected works that demonstrate this, like his Weeping Woman, one of the nine pieces on this theme that he painted in 1937. This series, which focuses on the image of a crying woman, is regarded as a thematic continuation of the war tragedy depicted in his well-known anti-war painting Guernica, in response to the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica in Spain during the Spanish Civil war.
Another eye-catching piece is Cat Seizing A Bird, where a ferocious cat with sharp claws holds a struggling, wounded bird in its jaws, a depiction that symbolises the conflict and violence of war.
Picasso was reported to have said, “I did not paint the war because I am not the kind of painter who sets out looking for subjects, like a photographer. But there is no doubt that the war is present in the paintings that I did at the time. Later, perhaps, a historian will demonstrate that my work changed under the influence of the war.”
It is the paintings in this section that are among the most accessible, as the imagery borrows from everyday scenes and incorporates emotions that are relatable to all.
In closing, the exhibition’s final section looks at the final years of Picasso’s life and career, a time when critics called him irrelevant and belonging to another era.
During this time, he took a closer look at the work of past masters such as Dutch painter Rembrandt and Spanish painters Francisco Goya and Diego Velazquez, and began to reinterpret their distinctive iconography. He confided in a friend that it is not death he fears, but the thought of being ill and not being able to work that was much more concerning.
Stoic in the face of death, the matador – or sometimes a musketeer – often appeared in Picasso’s paintings in the last years of his life. One such example is The Matador, which is on display in the exhibition, a hero and symbol of virility that gives us a glimpse into the passion Picasso had for his work and life.
He worked up until the day he died, painting till 3am before his death later in the morning.
Given the wide net cast by this exhibition, on Picasso and his peers, it is only fitting that there is a contemporary work that reflects this sentiment.
Dutch artist Rineke Dijkstra’s video installation I See A Woman Crying at The Picasso Century, produced during a residency at Tate Liverpool in 2008, gathers a group of 11 and 12 year old students, who are filmed responding to one of Picasso’s works from his Weeping Woman series.
“Beyond illuminating the diversity of the interpretive process when viewing art, which often remains silent and hidden during the museum visit, this work provides an opportunity to reflect on the Picasso’s artistic legacy and relevance today,” according to the NGV.
Indeed, the exhibition does more than examine Picasso’s art; it also provides glimpses into what made him the artist and man he is, and offers many entry points in delving into history, culture and art appreciation.