Thursday, 12 January 2012

Picasso at the Art Gallery of NSW

Tax collectors are universally disliked, but we have them to thank for the magnificent exhibition of works by Picasso that is on display at the Art Gallery of NSW until 25th March.

Picasso often proclaimed: "I am the greatest Picasso collector in the world." And so he was. He hated to part with his work. At the time of his death in 1973, there were 70,000 of this prolific artist's works preserved in his various studios and warehouses. In lieu of inheritance tax, his heirs gave the French State first refusal of thousands of artworks in all mediums, plus photographs, documents and personal correspondence. When his widow died in 1986, the taxman scored another two thousand Picassos in lieu of death duties. (Not to mention 900 masterworks by his fellow-artists, from his personal collection.) The Musée Picasso in Paris was set up to house this collection, which constitutes a pictorial "diary", a chronology of the development of his style.

A selection from the Musée Picasso is on loan to the NSW gallery while the museum is undergoing renovations. They represent every period in the artist's career and every medium that he used. They are chronologically arranged in ten rooms.  I'll just touch on a few of the highlights and urge you to go and see for yourself.

The first room contains some of Picasso's early drawings and examples from his so-called Blue and Rose Periods. The one that stood out for me was the portrait of the brothel-keeper Celestine, an old woman with a milky eye. She looks forlorn and isolated in her dark blue cloak. The painting is almost a monochrome in its tones of blue-grey, the only touch of colour a faint blush on one cheek.

The next room contains works from the three years 1906-1909, when Picasso was fascinated by tribal art. The African and Pacific influences are evident here. There are several sketches and studies for Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, the controversial masterpiece that he painted in 1907. The savage power of the completed work is already palpable in the angular features of the women in the sketches. You can see why Picasso called the painting "an exorcism".

I liked the bronze bust of his mistress Fernande Olivier: it is so much like the cubist portrait of her which we saw at the NGV as part of the European Masters exhibition a few years ago. It is one of my favourite pictures.

We move on to the period when Picasso worked in tandem with Georges Braque, developing the cubist style, which combines several possible views of a three-dimensional object in one image.

Picasso called Cézanne "my only master" and said that he had spent years studying his work. It shows! The influence of Cézanne is clearly discernible in these proto-cubist works, especially in some of the earlier still lifes and landscapes.

The limited colour palette, mostly browns and greys, focuses attention on the shapes, the interlacing lines and shaded planes. Here are also a number of his collages, a new kind of sculpture incorporating all kinds of materials into wall-mounted paintings, from newsprint to sheet iron.

Picasso returned to classicism in the early 20s, when he befriended Serge Diaghilev and designed sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes. He also married a Ballet Russes ballerina, Olga Koklova. In this room I was enchanted by his elegant portrait of Olga, and I was thrilled to see the original portrait, so well-known in reproduction, of his son Paul as Harlequin.

Picasso really looked at the works of other great artists, and he wasn't shy to reference them - I loved his Village Dance, so clearly a homage to Renoir!

In the fifth room there are a number of female nudes, including The Reader and Nude in a Garden, for both of which Marie-Thérèse Walter was the model. Picasso met her when she was barely seventeen, and I love his many paintings of her: they are instantly recognisable for their tender pastels and lyrical curves, in contrast to his portraits of his other mistress, the photographer Dora Maar. Dora, a confident professional woman, is always depicted in geometrical planes, spiky shapes and strong colours. (Think of the NGV's Weeping Woman, which is a portrayal of Dora's grief at the death of her father.)

Picasso tried to keep his affaire with Marie-Thérèse secret and did "disguised portraits" of her, one of which is also on display here. It purports to be a Still Life On A Pedestal Table, but there is the signature fall of her blonde hair, the defining youthful colours, and the sinuous curves of various body parts doubling as still life objects. When she became pregnant, the cat was out of the bag and divorce from Olga followed.

Dora Maar documented day by day the painting of "Guernica", Picasso's monumental work depicting the bombing of that town during the Spanish Civil War. This series of photographs is also on display.

During WW2, Picasso continued to live and paint in Paris, harassed to some extent by the Gestapo, who kept a watchful eye on him. During this period and into the early 1950s, his work contains many symbols of death and violence: skulls, bulls, soldiers.

His harrowing Massacre in Korea references Goya's The Third of May and also reminds me of Manet's Execution of the Emperor Maximilian.

Come to think of it, I suppose Manet must have had a good look at the Goya before he painted Maximilian, just as he had a good look at Titian's Venus of Urbino before he got out the Winsor and Newtons to paint Olympia.

Directors remake other directors' movies, authors use other writers' plots, painters reference each others' works. And so they should. It is so interesting to look at a film, a book or a painting and detect echoes or a different arrangement of earlier ones that you enjoyed. But that is another story.

After he married the potter Jacqueline Roque in the mid-fifties, Picasso's work took a more cheerful turn. They moved to the south of France, where he started to paint with Matisse, much like he did with Braque many years earlier. The Matisse influence is evident in the lambent light and vivid colours of his work during this period.

Next time you are in Sydney, have a look at Nude in a Rocking Chair, one of the treasures of the NSW Art Gallery's permanent collection. The clear bright colours and background palm tree clearly defines it as part of this Cannes oeuvre.

Picasso painted until the end of his life at age 92. Many of his late works were inspired by other great artists: the best known is probably his series of Las Meninas after Velasquez. In the last room, I was delighted by his Déjeuner Sur L'herbe after Manet.

I felt very privileged to have been able to see this collection - that magnificent old Spaniard was so prolific, in so many media, and his work packs such an emotional punch! He is truly the Mohammed Ali of the art world: he floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. When the last trumpets sound and the saints go marching in through those pearly gates, Pablo Picasso will be leading the artists.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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