By Richard P. Townsend
We all know the saying about “truth in advertising,” and in truth Picasso Black and White, the exhibition recently at the Guggenheim Museum, New York (where I viewed it) and currently at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is not quite what it says it is…
It is an important retrospective of that giant of the 20th century quite cleverly disguised as a theme show. Oh, and by the way, it isn’t all “black and white.” But then again, this too aptly sums up Pablo Picasso. Whether regarding his artistic origins or allegiances, his personal life and loves, his relationship with his mother country or that of his adopted home, his role during the war, all of it is complicated and not at all straight forward. The only thing that is “black and white” about this artist is his genius and the critical role he plays in the history of art.
Picasso Black and White perhaps should have been titled Picasso: Monochrome or Picasso en grisaille. In fairness lead curator Carmen Giménez admits as much in her introductory catalogue essay. And in fact the exhibition in New York opened with a monochromatic masterpiece from his Blue Period, Woman Ironing (1904; Guggenheim Museum). Heavy with modernista Barcelona overtones, the image of the gaunt woman leaning heavily over an iron as she presses white linens participates in a long, distinguished line of images of industry. Compare for example with Picasso’s much older contemporary Edgar Degas’s Women Ironing (c. 1884; Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena). Both share a blue-gray-brown palette, and Picasso’s woman at her backbreaking labor could be the the mirror image of Degas’ figure on the right. Taken together, these two paintings demonstrate the long tradition of depictions of repetitive figures performing repetitive work—cleaning, scraping, sewing, sweeping, harvesting—a veritable encyclopedia of the Industrial Revolution and increasingly mechanized 19th-century society.
In the catalogue Giménez essentially treats line or drawing, given the absence of color. Richard Schiff’s dense but ultimately rewarding essay “Turn” deals with volume by way of examining Picasso’s sculpture as well as how he depicted three-dimensional objects in space in two-dimensional media such as painting and drawing. This necessitated the flattening and schematization of figures and details that became such a hallmark of Picasso’s style. We are led through Picasso’s engagement with these fundamentals of representation: line, volume, form, light and color (or its absence, which reveals—as a number of critics have noted—that Picasso’s art is not about color). The exhibition’s investigation into Picasso as painter of “black and white” becomes more largely one into the very nature of Picasso’s art, which is to say, how Picasso did what he did and why.
Cubism—that watershed moment in Picasso’s, and art history’s, narrative—is largely monochromatic. While there are some drawings from the proto-Cubist phase of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), Cubism itself is represented here by four paintings from 1909-10 from the earlier, analytical phase. Of these complex compositions in browns, grays, greens and black, perhaps the most sophisticated is The Accordionist (1910; Guggenheim Museum). As it defies one-point perspective, one can readily see the instrument as it cascades in sections down the canvas. The Cézanne-like broken contours add to the slippage of two dimensions into three.
It comes as no surprise then that sculpture plays an important role throughout, given its usual (at least in the modern age) monochromatic presentation. A splendid example is the plaster Head of a Woman (Fernande) (1909; Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas). One of only two plasters made by Picasso from which at least sixteen bronzes were cast, this version is completely white, unlike Tate Modern’s version which has been toned in a brownish finish (presumably to emulate bronzes cast from it). The point of Cubism was to disregard one-point perspective in painting—long held since the Renaissance—breaking down the picture plane, the prison of two dimensions, enabling the artist to show the object or figure in the round. This has been understood to be the point of sculpture since the “Paragone” debate of the Italian Renaissance, “Which is superior, sculpture or painting?” Here then in the very first year of Picasso’s work in Cubism comes a sculpted version of his experimentations on canvas, a dynamic vision of his muse and lover Fernande shown in all its faceted glory.
Another plaster in the show is Head of a Woman, Left Profile (Marie-Thérèse) (1931; private collection). Here showing his lover Marie-Thérèse, it references portraits in profile from Antiquity. The relief is a throw-back ten years earlier to Picasso’s Neo-Classical period, when he and other artists withdrew from abstraction and anguished subjects to more serene and traditional styles in response to the horrors of the First World War. Nowhere is the 1920s’ “return to order” more evident than in the lyrical Man with Pipe or The Lovers, both painted in early to later Summer 1923 (Private Collection and Jan Krugier Estate, respectively). They could both very well be lifted from a 5th century B.C. white ground Greek vase painting.
A beautiful selection of paintings from this Neo-Classical period is among the highlights of the exhibition. Women are a frequent subject—as ever—during this time, and an amazing pair—a Seated Nude of 1922-23 (Abelló Collection, Madrid) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s great Woman in White (1923)—are two of the prime examples here, the latter’s flesh tones notwithstanding. It is another woman, however, that aptly sums up the contradiction of Picasso’s art in the most cogent sort of way in the Bust of a Woman, Arms Raised (1922; Michael and Judy Steinhardt Collection, New York). This magnificently marmoreal image evokes carved sculpture in her face’s crisp contours. However, in the upper right-hand, Picasso depicts her interlocking fingers with the most general, simplified line, not unlike that in the arresting yin-and-yang face of Marie-Thérèse, Face and Profile (1931; private collection) and those sweeping, abstracted figures of the ‘30s.
As we know all too well, this serenity was not to last—politically or culturally—and in Picasso’s work the strident, frightening fragmentation and rearrangement of the figure and emphasis on the black and white palette speed up to the next defining moment in the artist’s career. The beleaguered Second Spanish Republic—under attack from Generalissimo Franco and his Fascist Falangists—opened the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 International Exposition in Paris. The pavilion promoted the Republican cause, drawing the world’s attention to their plight through an extraordinary artistic outpouring by Joan Miró, Picasso, Julio Gonzalez and Alexander Calder. Guernica, Picasso’s monumental cry against the savagery of the Spanish Civil War, now in the Reina Sofía, Madrid, depicts the eponymous town which in April 1937 was subjected to almost complete annihilation by Franco’s German allies’ bombing raid, with over 1,500 innocent men, women and children massacred. The next month Picasso began to paint his epic black-and-white composition—perhaps the largest of its kind—first producing such studies as Head of a Horse, Sketch for Guernica (1937; Reina Sofía, Madrid). The Pavilion opened late, in June. As Guernica does not travel, all that were available for the present exhibition were studies and “postscripts” such as Mother with Dead Child II (1937; Reina Sofía, Madrid) painted later, that September. The screaming horse and the wailing mother—both with dagger-like tongues—aptly convey the horror. In brutal black and white, Guernica and its associated paintings continue to shock us, in this last the mother’s erect nipples aching to nurse the child that will nurse no more.
The horrors of war and its easy mortality continue in a series of remarkable works following the searing power of the Guernica display. Still Life with Blood Sausage (1941; Ganz Collection, Los Angeles) shows a table top vertiginously tipped towards the viewer, loaded with the sausage, artichokes, cheese with its newspaper wrapping, a knife and a bottle of wine. All the elements of Picasso’s famous Cubist still lifes are here, only reassembled to re-form again these typical elements. Below the table’s surface is an open drawer stuffed full of silverware. It is masterful illusionism and even more so, a portrait of daily life during war. All in black, white and gray and presided over by a shaded light fixture which seems to interrogate the foodstuffs—and the viewer—“how is it you have all this during wartime?” It is as if to comment on the uneasy relationship between the occupiers and the occupied and their guilt. The sharpness of the knife and the tines of the silverware add to the aura of danger. In the final analysis, still lifes have been understood for centuries for their message of vanitas, of death and decay, and this painting is no exception.
A shockingly brutal bronze sculpture Skull (1943; private collection) transitions us from the world of allegorical metaphor of the previous painting to completely direct references to the Holocaust (one needs nothing more than to compare this to the “bling” of Damien Hirst’s diamond-studded skull to reveal the latter’s complete superficiality). The Charnel House (1944-45; Museum of Modern Art, New York) references a place where bodies or their bones are placed, and here conjures up the photographs that were coming out of the East of the dead stacked like cordwood. Once again, Picasso employs the motif of the still life—seen here in the upper left-hand of the canvas—next to bound and mutilated bodies in a powerful reminder of the ultimate horror of the war, an abattoir of human flesh.
Some sixteen years before his death, Picasso assayed a major subject, reprising the composition of a touchstone of Western civilization, Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (or The Maids of Honor). In a series of paintings, Picasso was keen to make the famous 17th-century painting his own. Here in The Maids of Honor (Las Meninas, after Velázquez) (1957; Museu Picasso, Barcelona), he first made Velázquez’s vertical format into a horizontal one (more like Guernica, say). Secondly, and undoubtedly most importantly—while all the elements of Velázquez’s composition are in place in Picasso’s, one stands out more than any other. The figure at an easel (to the far left)—the painter himself—looms completely out of proportion to the original and to any other figures in Picasso’s rendition. The message is, I believe, not only that the artist is more important than any other figure in this composition; or that Velázquez is one of the greatest artists of all time; or even that Picasso compares himself to—or rather, is—Velázquez. It is that the archetypal Artist towers above all others—is the supreme Creator, the center of gravity—in any area of activity and in every walk of life (positioned as he is here among these figures of fashion, power and politics). How else to explain this giant among the dwarves?
Much has been made of Picasso’s place in the long line of Spanish old masters such as El Greco, Velázquez and Goya. It is clear from his work and his biography how assiduously he worked to link himself—especially in later life with legacy on his mind—to his predecessors. In her essay Giménez quotes critic David Sylvester, “Velázquez and Goya made a colour of black; Picasso’s black-and-white pictures isolate this strain in the Spanish tradition.” Yes, his reprise of Las Meninas is rooted in the venerable Spanish tradition of austerity—court dress in black and pious religious devotion—but it is as well a fitting end, both to his career and to Picasso Black and White. As Picasso considered the great artists of the past, he employed the very black-and-white palette that evokes the “dark” Old Masters, among whom he was about to take his place.