Picasso fever comes to the Seattle Art Museum with show from the Musée National Picasso, Paris
Seattle Art Museum hosts "Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris."
Seattle Times arts writer
Seattle Art Museum is hosting more than 150 works from Spanish artist Pablo Picasso's amazingly varied career. Learn more about Picasso's major "periods."
More on the exhibition:
'Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris'Opens Friday; 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. Wednesdays- Sundays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays through Jan. 17, 2011, plus special opening-weekend hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Oct. 11, Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave., Seattle; $8-$23 (206-654-3100 or seattleartmuseum.org).
People routinely speak of Pablo Picasso's Blue Period, his Rose Period, his cubist, neoclassical and surrealist phases and even his postmodern period, as if his career developed in tidy progressive stages.
But the Spanish-born, Paris-based artist (1881-1973) didn't quite see it that way.
Interviewed in 1923, he discussed his work in terms that cast an extraordinarily helpful light on the show opening this week at the Seattle Art Museum: "The several manners I have used in my art must not be considered as an evolution, or as steps toward an unknown ideal of painting. ... If the subjects I have wanted to express have suggested different ways of expression, I haven't hesitated to adopt them."
"Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris" bears this out. It covers more than 70 years in the career of the artist. And it shows as much lateral thinking going on as linear development.
SAM's show is, above all, testimony to a restless, innovative mind in action. And that testimony was chosen, to a large degree, by Picasso himself.
A little background: The Musée National Picasso, Paris, was founded in 1985 to house and display "works acquired by the French state from [Picasso's] heirs in lieu of an inheritance tax in 1979." So explains Anne Baldassari, the museum's chief curator of heritage, in an essay included in the catalog for the show. The state, she adds, was given "first refusal" of 70,000 works stored in Picasso's various studios over the years.
In addition to these, there was Picasso's own collection of work by other artists, including Cézanne, Seurat, Matisse and Braque, as well as works of Iberian, African and Oceanic art that had a crucial influence on him (not in the SAM show). Add to that 200,000 items from his personal archives: press clippings, photographs, correspondences, etc.
From this overwhelming bounty, the Musée National Picasso selected more than 5,000 Picasso works and 900 other artists' works that he owned.
The collection, Baldassari writes, is "exceptional in that it is the direct result of the vigilance of an artist determined to avoid the dispersal of works that constituted the very stuff of his pictorial 'diary.' "
The SAM exhibit is composed of more than 150 Picasso artworks: 75 paintings and sculptures, plus prints, drawings and photographs. The works are available because the Paris museum is undergoing renovation. The exhibit's last stop was The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Widely recognized masterpieces include "La Celestina (The Woman with a Cataract)" (1904) from his Blue Period, "Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race)" from his neoclassical phase (influenced in part by set-design work he did for the Ballets Russes) and his 1937 "Portrait of Dora Maar," one of his many mistresses. (Maar is the subject of many other portraits in different media.)
In sculpture, we have 1905's "The Jester" in bronze, 1943's "Death's Head" in bronze and copper (a grim artifact from the Nazi-occupation years in Paris) and an extraordinarily goatlike goat in bronze from 1950.
That said, you won't find certain watershed works from Picasso's oeuvre that have long had homes in other museums: his 1906 portrait of Gertrude Stein (in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art) or "Guernica," Picasso's anguished protest against the 1937 "experimental" bombing of a Spanish village by Francisco Franco's fascist German and Italian allies (now in Spain's Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, after a long residence in New York's Museum of Modern Art).
Some masterpieces, while not part of the Musée Picasso collection, are there by implication. "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," a 1907 turning point that found Picasso incorporating a "primitivist" influence in his work, resides in the Museum of Modern Art. But a number of studies for it — in various media — are held by the Musée Picasso, and several will be on show at SAM.
Once you progress beyond the Blue Period (1901-1904), Rose Period (1904-1906) and the cubist-primitivist explosions that swiftly followed them, it grows tougher to link career chronology with any linear developments in his style. As the artist himself put it: "Variation does not mean evolution."
Everything seems to be going on at once. Near-abstract works, such as "Pipe, Glass and Playing-card," are painted within months of the almost Sargent-like "Portrait of Olga in an Armchair," both from 1918. Just when it seems he's had his fill of neoclassical endeavors and is going to ditch figurative work altogether in the late 1920s, he brings it back in 1931 with "The Acrobat," an oil painting of such spare, buoyant elegance that it seems practically to float off its canvas. It's as easy on the eye as "Large Still Life on a Pedestal Table," painted only one year later, is challenging.
Sometimes he goes the middle road. In "Reading" (1932), the clean artful lines of "The Acrobat" combine with the thorny abstraction of "Large Still Life" to create an immediately recognizable figure delivered with colorful flair.
And so it goes through the decades. It's as if the artist is ricocheting between half a dozen tracks of thought and visual possibility as he "progresses" from one year to next.
His drawings and etchings chart a similar course. "The Frugal Meal," from 1904, is an early high point, with its two down-and-out characters draped around each other in a stoical yet insouciant Toulouse-Lautrec manner. Fluid expression and canny human observation give way to angular experiment in the charcoal drawings of 1908 ... which are succeeded, in turn, by cubist planes — sharp-edged visual fugues — in the early 1910s.
But in the 1920s, the human figure asserts itself again tenderly, playfully, beguilingly in the 1921 etching on zinc, "Motherly Joy." 1933 sees the artist embarking on scenes of sexual coupling, some of them sublimely sensual, others crude to the point of being graffitilike stick figures.
Later oil paintings — "Women at Their Toilette" (1956), "Jacqueline with Crossed Hands" (1954), "Woman on a Pillow" (1969) — have a seductive gravitas, while you could make a case that "Reclining Nude and Man Playing a Guitar" (1970) borders on the puerile.
The only thing you can expect, after a certain point, is the unexpected.
Each visitor will stumble across a surprise that doesn't quite fit in with their preconceptions of the artist's work. And some of the show's best moments promise to be its humblest: a lovely 1942 ink sketch for Picasso's 1943 sculpture, "Man with Sheep" (also in the show) or a 1952 pencil drawing of an owl that looks almost steel-helmeted in its stern gaze.
SAM Director Derrick Cartwright is calling the show "the Northwest's first major presentation of Pablo Picasso's work. As such, it represents a once-in-a-lifetime chance for a large public to view these important objects in Seattle."
Baldassari, in describing the Musée Picasso's holdings as Picasso's "visual diary," makes clear that it's his endlessly varied approach to artmaking that is the collection's focus, more than any individual masterpieces. And that seems to reflect the way Picasso himself felt about his endeavors.
"Whenever I had something to say," he observed with disarming simplicity in 1923, "I have said it in the manner in which I have felt it ought to be said."
This is Seattle's opportunity to get a glimpse of that "something" in all its startling variety.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com
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