Picoso: the Man, the Muses, the Exhibit, and the Boobs!

January 10, 2011

An illicit photo I took of Picasso's self-portrait before being chided by SAM staff.

I finally made it to the hugely popular Picasso exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) after literally everyone, including my 90-year-old grandmother had seen it. Her assessment: “Well, there sure were lot of boobs.”

Yes, boobs: pointy boobs, round boobs, geometric boobs, boulder boobs, bone like boobs, and even boobs suspended in the air with nothing but dots for nipples. However, (somewhat to my surprise) there was a lot more to the exhibit than boobs.

The boobs and art are from his private collection and are courtesy of the Museé National Picasso in Paris, the place he called home for most of his life. While of course I’m aware of Pablo Picasso (that old rascal) and knew a bit about him before visiting, I’m certainly no scholar. The way they staged the exhibit to follow his life path from the early childhood to his death, from artistic style to artistic style and lover to lover, really helped me wrap my head around this complex, artistic figure. As Picasso himself said, “Painting is just another way of keeping a diary” and through his art we most definitely see his life.

Picasso was born in Spain and was clearly an artistic prodigy from very young age. His father was also an art and is said to have turned his brushes over to his teenage soon after recognizing his superior talent. The first gallery of the exhibit shows his work as a young man living in Barcelona. The most notable paintings are a portrait of a friend who had committed suicide and the well-known La Celestina, which is depicted in near photo-realism. These paintings are from his blue (or monochromatic) period. I imagine the muted colors are due to his somber mood after losing such a close friend at such a young age.

La Celestina (Courtesy of the SAM)

Following the blue period came the rose period from a time when Picasso was living in a Catalan village away from dark, urban imagery. Here we see paintings and etchings of the “saltimbanques” or gypsies in traditional family settings and practicing performing arts such as acrobatics. All of the above work was fairly new to me, since (like most people) I am more familiar with his work in the next gallery: cubism. This period highlights Picasso’s newfound interest in African tribal art, which is seen in his mask like faces, and introduces subjects he repeats again and again throughout his life: guitars and the heads of women. It also helps us understand one of Picasso’s strongest attributes as an artist: his unique and somewhat radical sense of perspective.

For Picasso, cubism was a way to show a subject from all of its vantage points. For example, a person can be viewed from the front, back, or side profile. If all of these viewpoints can exist simultaneously, why can’t they be painted on canvas simultaneously as well? A good example of this is shown in one of the few pieces at the exhibit I found immediately pleasing, an unfinished painting of Sacre-Coeur.

Sacre-Coeur (Courtesy of the SAM)

Another why of thinking about cubism is simplifying a subject by depicted every contour line as a vertical plane. Picasso also turned convex shapes like a cheek into hollowed concave shapes as in his sculpture, Head of a Woman (Fernande). When these ideas of cubism caught on in the educational sphere and the artist style went academic, Picasso decided is was no longer avant-garde enough for him and lost interest.

Right around this time Picasso returned to realism in his work, married a Russian dancer named Olga, and had his first child, a son named Paulo. Portraits of both his wife and son are on display at the exhibit in near photorealism. The other ‘realistic’ photos in this gallery include still life paintings and figures. While the figures are more obviously people than in his cubist works, they still have a sort of exaggerated body language and composition, such as women with overly stocky builds.

The next artistic movement to influence Picasso was surrealism, with fantastical images of love-making (The Kiss), acrobats, and (with his wife’s failing health) a series of coded paintings depicting his new mistress Marie-Therese. Unlike the other surrealists, Picasso always remained true to his subject and the subject closest to his heart for many years was Marie. She is depicted in a huge body of both his paintings and sculptures.

Reading, a portrait of Marie-Therese (Courtesy of the SAM)

Indeed, Picasso’s work was quite obviously influenced by all of the women in his life. Considering how young and beautiful his lovers were and how many he had (even simultaneously), he clearly had game. After Marie there was the political Dora Maar, who got him involved in speaking out against the Spanish Civil War and World War II. He painted dozens of portraits of Dora, which followed his surrealist style with exaggerated facial features.  In these a nose, a jaw, or eye socket takes over the entire image. He painted this way because he said  that was how he saw her when they kissed.

In other portraits he depicted Dora as the weeping woman and the images are quite tortured. In this vain, his mural, Guernica, portrays the bombing by the Spanish of a small Basque town. Some of the sketches in this part of the museum look like they are straight out of a psych ward and are quite disturbing. With two major wars and Picasso juggling three different relationships, he called this the worst time in his life.

The final two women in his life were Francoise, who bore him is 3rd and 4th child and lived with him for 10 years, and Jacqueline, who later became his second wife. During his time with Francoise and the children in the south of France, there is a return to play in his art. However, I think he was beginning to feel his age. One particularly sad painting called The Shadow shows Francoise in all of her nude glory yet in comparison he, the painter, is depicted as a faded, shriveled shadow in the foreground.

The Shadow (Courtesy of the SAM)

Unfortunately, in 1953 Francoise left him with the children and after she published a book about their life together, created an estrangement between Picasso and all 3 of them. Jacqueline was the last woman in his life and was with him until his death at the ripe old age of 91. According to the narrators of the tour, while Jacqueline never posed nude for him, art historians know the most about her physique due to the volume of images depicting her and probably the length of their intimate relationship. There is one particularly lusty portrait where she has a look in her eyes that (according to one expert) says, “I’m up for whatever you’re up for.”

In the final years of his life, Picasso worked feverishly, ruminating on the work of his peers who had all since passed: Manet, Delacroix, and Matisse.  While he could no longer play the machismo figure he had been his whole life (no more smoking or sex due to declining health), in the end he still had the spirit of a champion, as depicted in the supposed self-portrait, The Matador.

The Matador (Courtesy of the SAM)

Although Picasso is by no means my favorite artist, he is such a prominent figure in so many artistic movements that this exhibit is definitely worth checking out. If you need more incentive, there are also many other great works by modern artists, such as Pollack, on display in rest of the museum. One of my favorites was the Belgian painter and sculptor, Cris Brodahl.

Since this write-up is very late in coming (the Picasso exhibit closes January 17), you’ll have to visit the SAM ASAP! If not, you’ll need to make a trip to Richmond, VA from February through May or San Francisco from June through September in order to see it before it returns to Paris.

However, I’ll also give you a sneak peak at an exhibit entitled “Meet Me at the Center of the Earth” by Nick Cave, which will be at the SAM in just a few months.

These “soundsuits” are made almost entirely of second hand clothing and other found objects and they are crazy looking. I am a total ‘waste not want not’ proponent, so I love the idea. I imagine the fabrication of the soundsuits is quite challenging, but due to the whimsy of the design I don’t think the artist is trying to be totally serious. It’s as though he is making a jest through art sort of like a jazz joke.

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