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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Picasso, cubiste et demi

by Maurice Ulrich

Picasso, More than a Cubist

Translated Saturday 6 October 2007, by Helen Robertshaw

Paintings. The important exhibition at the Picasso Museum encompasses the multiform creation of the painter between 1906 and 1924. A second exhibition brings together the photos of Rwanda by Gilles Peress and Picasso’s Guernica.

We can always fear the best with Picasso. The collection of paintings he completed between 1906 and 1924 on display at the Picasso Museum, along with the numerous drawings and pages from his notebooks, for which ‘research’ would be the proper term, are certainly exceptional, but the significance of the exhibition is enhanced by the knowledge we possess about that period of radical rupture in painting. Indeed, the idea of representation itself was overturned, as we say of a regime, to liberate painting as a medium. This period of radical rupture is explored once more, where objects, wallpaper, newspapers, pieces of wood and cardboard, pieces of string and nails became the painter’s raw materials.

But there is a second exhibition taking place at the Hôtel Salé which houses the Picasso Museum. This second exhibition brings together the images taken in Rwanda and Bosnia by Gilles Peress, a photographer who has worked for the Magnum agency for thirty or so years. Gilles Peress himself wanted his photos to be placed alongside those of Guernica. Here we feared the worst; it seemed such a bold and absurd gesture to compare these very recent conflicts with the bombing of the little Basque town by German planes from the Condor Legion, an event which inspired Picasso to produce one of the most famous paintings in the history of art. It seemed all the more absurd given that the Picasso museum was obviously unable to display the painting itself, which is permanently housed in a museum in Madrid, but only the preparatory studies and a collection of photographs, showing the different stages in the painting process. It is thus the painting itself which has resonances with the photos taken by Gilles Peress, photos which are shocking and almost unbearable to look at. Piles of dead bodies, rotting corpses, rubble. But it is precisely this same violence which Picasso sought to articulate in his painting. Using the dramatic effects of black and white paint, the impact of the contrasts, the tragic expression of the braying horse and the brightness of the light bulb… This is the face of war, with its violent outbursts and Picasso’s painting, in turn, reconnects with life via these visions of recent atrocities, ceasing to be the purely symbolic image it has become and rediscovering the savage and powerful cry it once represented.

The missing demoiselles

That said, we could ramble on and on about the private misfortunes of the Picasso museum. The museum does not have Guernica. Nor does it have the Demoiselles d’Avignon which is in New York, and the Americans are not very generous when it comes to lending paintings. As a result, the museum is forced to put together exhibitions with the works it already possesses and works on loan from other collections, but is always trying to compensate for what is inevitably missing. This involves a constant quest for artworks, a quest from which there is no respite. The exhibition “Picasso cubiste” thus arose from this lack of artworks, as it was intended to celebrate the centenary of the absent and precious Demoiselles d’Avignon. There was certainly no question of redesigning the exhibition which, with the many drawings, studies etc on display, had successfully retraced the remarkable inception, lasting several months, of this painting which initially seemed bizarre and outlandish, even to those close to the painter. And so it was suggested that the exhibition should encompass the painter’s works from 1906 to 1924, this last year signalling a change of direction in the artist’s work, a change profound enough for 1924 to be considered a turning point. Such assertions are nonetheless always risky where Picasso is concerned due to the unpredictability of his artistic trajectory. The Demoiselles is thus not in fact a cubist painting. Firstly because the term had not yet been invented, suggested as it was by Matisse in 1908 with reference to a painting by Braque and the technique of using small cubes, before the term was adopted by critics. Secondly because Picasso’s intention was not a priori to produce a cubist painting but to create an entirely new artistic synthesis, which simultaneously challenged and consolidated all he had understood, learned and absorbed from pre-Roman Iberian sculpture, Cézanne, in part from negro art although to a lesser extent than has been claimed, and from Gauguin, etc.

Philosophical chaos

An artistic synthesis initiated with his self-portrait of 1906 and further developed during months of research, progress and difficulties, during opium-fuelled months of solitude. Les Demoiselles is not, strictly speaking, a cubist painting but the space it opened up was entirely fresh and new. Tawny colours enriched the palette of the Impressionists but were always used to realistic effect. Les Demoiselles was in keeping with the criticism of traditional painting and its classical heritage (from Dürer to Ingres, among others), and with the painter’s own state of mind. Painting is a cerebral process, and the painting itself is, according to Apollinaire, a philosophical chaos. This concept paved the way for cubism and different types of cubism such as paper collages and other forms. The focus was no longer the artwork’s relationship with reality but what was actually going on within the painting itself. From then onwards, anything was permitted, provided that it worked as art, for Picasso was very firm in his opinions on this issue; as far as he was concerned cubism “included and made use of drawing, composition and colour with the same mastery and in the same way as all the other schools”. One of the most iconoclastic figures in the history of art was, we shall never forget, a great classicist. We cannot pigeonhole Picasso or associate him, even during the period in question, solely with cubism, as the artist opened up so many creative paths. This is the major lesson to be learnt from this important exhibition.

Musée national Picasso in Paris. Until 7 January 2008.
Catalogue published by the Musée Picasso, la Réunion des musées nationaux and Flammarion. 370 pages. 49 Euros.

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