PICASSO — Now at the de Young Museum

Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris

Sean Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

The de Young Museum presents a major exhibition by the seminal artist of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso. The exhibition Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris, is on view in the Herbst Special Exhibition Galleries and runs through October 9th, 2011.

This extraordinary exhibition of works by Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) was selected from the permanent collection of the Musée National Picasso, Paris. The Musée Picasso, which opened in 1985 in the seventeenth-century Hôtel Salé in the Marais district of Paris, serves as the repository for nearly 3,600 works from the artist’s personal collection that passed to the French government following his death. Ranging from preliminary sketches to finished masterpieces, this unique collection of “Picasso’s Picassos” provides ample proof of the artist’s assertion, “I am the greatest collector of Picassos in the world.”

Self Portrait (1907). Paris, Autumn1906.
Oil on canvas. 25½ x 21¼ inches

“This once-in-a-lifetime exhibition is comprised of works from every phase of Picasso’s extraordinary career, including masterpieces from his Blue, Rose, Expressionist, Cubist, Neoclassical and Surrealist periods,” describes John E. Buchanan, Jr., director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “These works present eloquent testimony to his role as a protean figure who not only created and contributed to new art forms and movements, but also forever transformed the very definition of art itself. Following on the heels of our recent exhibitions of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, this exhibition represents a natural progression forward to the masterworks of the 20th century.”

“The exhibition Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris lifts the curtain on the first act of a groundbreaking partnership between the Musée Picasso and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, with the intention of deepening our institutional, artistic and scientific links over the coming decade,” says Anne Baldassari, general commissioner and president of the Musée National Picasso.

Chat saisissant un oiseau. 1939

Picasso’s personal life, including his complex relationships with his wives, mistresses, and muses, also can be traced through his art. As he once commented, “Painting is just another way of keeping a diary.” These artworks provide insight into Picasso’s working process and offer eloquent testimony to his role as a protean figure who created and contributed to numerous new art forms and movements. Although he never embraced purely abstract art, Picasso demonstrated through his radical pictorial and sculptural innovations that in art, anything is possible. By incorporating found objects from the real world into his collage and assemblage works, he altered their meaning, challenged viewers to participate more actively in the perception and interpretation of the artwork, and dissolved the traditional barriers that separated art and life. Ultimately, he transformed the very definition of art itself.

The Musée National Picasso’s collection preserves the highly personal works that Pablo Picasso kept for himself with the intention of shaping his own artistic legacy.  Exhibited chronologically, covering all the phases of the modern master’s expansive eight-decade-long career and featuring the various media in which he worked, this meticulously assembled presentation includes works from the following periods.

Barcelona and Paris, 1901–1906

The Death of Casagemas. Paris, summer 1901.
Oil on wood. 10 7/8 x 13 3/4 inches.

Among Picasso’s circle in Paris was the artist and poet Carles Casagemas, a close friend from Barcelona who comitted suicide. In The Death of Casagemas (1901), Picasso employed the vivid palette and lush brushstrokes of Vincent van Gogh, another artist who killed himself, to commemorate his dead friend. For several years after this tragedy, while many French painters such as Henri Matisse were using vibrant Fauve color schemes, Picasso painted in muted tonalities.

The Blue period— La Célestine (1904) The Woman with a Cataract
The Rose period— Les deux frères (1906) The Two Brothers

His somber Blue Period subjects, inspired in part by the Spanish Renaissance master El Greco, included prostitutes, beggars, and impoverished mothers with their children. The model for La Celestine (1904), a painting based on a notorious madam from fiction, was an actual madam in Barcelona named Carlotta Valdivia.

The palette of Picasso’s subsequent Rose Period works was inspired in part by a stay in the sun-drenched Catalan town of Gósol during the summer of 1906. His subjects included circus or street performers, acrobats, and harlequins—artists who lived on the fringes of society. The young boys in Two Brothers (1906) are depicted next to a large drum used in their performances, which is topped by an empty bowl for tips.

Expressionism and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1906–1909

African-inspired proto-Cubist work —
Etude pour Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)
Three Figures Under a Tree (1907)

In the autumn of 1906, following his return to Paris from Gósol, Picasso began the intensive work that culminated in his early masterpiece, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Working toward this eight-foot-square painting, Picasso created at least a thousand preliminary studies. The warm ochre tones of the summer turned increasingly chalky, figures were hammered flat, and hollow-eyed faces became masklike.

Three Figures under a Tree (1907-1908) incorporates faceted planes that are suggestive of carved African sculptures. The flattening of all the pictorial elements onto the two-dimensional picture plane represents a major innovation in the development of Cubism. Invigorated by his dramatic encounter with African art, as well as by the powerful 1907 retrospective of Paul Cézanne’s paintings, Picasso embarked on another body of groundbreaking work that explored sculptural form in two dimensions.

Cubism, 1909–1918
By 1909 Picasso’s work was avidly sought by several vanguard collectors, and he was able to leave his bohemian life behind. During the next five years, Picasso and the French artist Georges Braque developed Cubism. Together, they revolutionized how three-dimensions could be represented two-dimensionally, reducing objects to their individual components, and depicting multiple perspectives simultaneously, thus introducing to the canvas the element of time.

Although Man with a Guitar (1911) must have seemed incomprehensible to viewers one hundred years ago, modern museumgoers can perceive a head clenching a pipe in its mouth at the top, a guitar with its round sound hole in the center, and curved table legs at the bottom. Picasso and Braque also invented modern collage, incorporating newspaper fragments into their works, and assemblage, utilizing found objects to create three-dimensional constructions. This glorious period of experimentation between the two artists, which revolutionized the depiction of space and time in art, came to an end with the outbreak of World War I (1914–1918).

Analytic Cubism— Man with a Guitar. Paris, autumn 1911. Oil on canvas.
Synthetic Cubism— Violin (1915)

Neoclassicism, 1918–1924

In the wake of World War I, Picasso joined with other artists who set aside their avant-garde styles in favor of a renewed interest in classical traditions and naturalistic representation. Some followers, who had embraced Cubism as the only valid rendering of form, considered this a conservative retreat, but Picasso consistently refused to be tied to any single art movement.

This transition was reinforced in 1917, when the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev invited Picasso to travel to Italy to design the sets and costumes for a new ballet, Parade. While in Italy, Picasso viewed classical art in Rome, Naples, and Pompeii, and he fell in love with Olga Khoklova, a dancer with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. They married in 1918, moved into a respectable bourgeois apartment, and had a son, Paulo (b. 1921).

Portrait d’Olga dans un fauteuil
Montrouge, spring 1918.
Oil on canvas. 51¼ x 35 inches

Picasso’s Portrait of Olga in an Armchair (1918), painted in the first year of their marriage, emulates the precision of the nineteenth-century French Neoclassical artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. While Picasso enjoyed his growing financial success, his wife’s bourgeois aspirations inevitably conflicted with the artist’s bohemian roots.

The protagonists of the proto-Surrealist Two Women Running on the Beach (1922) may represent the mythological maenads, the female followers of the Greek god Dionysius who embodied unchecked human passions. This theme may have held particular intrigue for Picasso given his circumstances at the time this picture was created.

Deux femmes courant sur la plage
Dinard, summer 1922. Gouache on plywood.

Surrealism, 1925–1935

The sense of comfortable domesticity that emanated from Picasso’s early images of family life all but disappeared in the late 1920s. Tensions at home, arising from Picasso’s infidelities and complicated by Olga Khoklova’s health problems, were manifested in disturbing new imagery. Seeking pictorial expressions of his inner anxiety, Picasso was inspired by the Surrealist movement, led by the writer André Breton. Influenced in part by the theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, the Surrealists sought to liberate the human unconscious and the imagination from cultural constraints.

The Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939

In 1935 the Surrealist poet Paul Éluard introduced Picasso to Dora Maar, a tall, striking woman who was a photographer, poet, and painter in her own right. Unlike the docile Marie-Thérèse Walter (Picasso’s mistress and mother of his second child) who “did whatever I wanted her to,” Dora Maar challenged Picasso intellectually and emotionally, which he found invigorating.

Portrait of Dora Maar. Paris, 1937. Oil on canvas.
The war years— The Weeping Woman (1937)

In contrast to Walter, whom Picasso rendered with pastel tones and sensual curves, Maar was portrayed with acidic colors and angular forms, as in Portrait of Dora Maar (1937). Maar’s tear-streaked face also served as a recurring universal symbol for tragedy and grief in anguished images responding to the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) and World War II (1939–1945), as in The Weeping Woman (1937).

Late Work, 1961–1973

The Kiss (1969). Oil on canvas.

In his eighties Picasso was unceasingly productive, following his own advice to “only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.” Following a dreaded ulcer operation in 1965, the artist told a friend that while age had forced him to give up sex and smoking, “the desire remains.” Because he equated sexuality with creativity, carnal appetites played a starring role in late works such as The Kiss (1969). In this painting, as Picasso is kissed by his wife, Jacqueline, he looks off into the distance as if anxious to return to his work. “I haven’t got a style,” Picasso claimed, but over the course of his long and prolific career, he created revolutionary works that laid the foundations of modern art.
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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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