“Picasso’s Drawings, 1890-1921: Reinventing Tradition” traveling exhibition at The Frick Collection
NEW YORK, N.Y.- Pablo Picasso was one of the world’s greatest draftsmen. Drawing was his primary medium for thinking, problem solving, invention, and personal expression. It was the link that connected his work in a variety of media, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, theater design, and ceramics, and was a direct tie to his predecessors. Picasso’s diverse body of original work on paper broke new ground, while also consciously incorporating aspects of the tradition from which it sprang. This autumn, The Frick Collection presents an exhibition of more than sixty drawings (works in pencil, ink, watercolor, gouache, pastel, and chalk) spanning the first thirty years of Picasso’s career, from his first signed drawing to works from the early 1920s.
During these same years, museum founder Henry Clay Frick (1849–1919) was acquiring masterpieces from the early Renaissance through the end of the nineteenth century. Frick and Picasso shared an appreciation of the same artistic heritage, the former as collector, the latter as creator. An innovator who both challenged and continued the grand European tradition celebrated at the Frick, Picasso belongs to the Collection as its most irrepressible offspring, although not actually represented in its holdings. The many references to the works of El Greco, Goya, Ingres, Renoir and others that run through his drawings link them indirectly with the museum’s permanent holdings, while the sheets exude the radical new spirit of the early twentieth century.
Beginning and ending in a classical mode, this period encompasses some of the most important steps in his career: his traditional academic training, his early encounters with works by modern and Old Master artists, his creative interaction with pre-classical and tribal art, his invention with Georges Braque of cubism and papier collé, and his postwar alternation between cubism and classicism—the groundwork for all the developments in his later career. This major exhibition also travels to Washington D.C. and will be shown at the National Gallery of Art from January 29 through May 6, 2012. It was organized by Susan Grace Galassi, Senior Curator, The Frick Collection, and Marilyn McCully, an independent scholar and authority on Picasso, in collaboration with Andrew Robison, the Andrew W. Mellon Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Major funding for the presentation in New York is provided by Bill and Donna Acquavella, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, and the late Melvin R. Seiden. Additional support is generously provided by Walter and Vera Eberstadt, Agnes Gund, the Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation, the Thaw Charitable Trust, Mr. and Mrs. Julio Mario Santo Domingo, and the National Endowment for the Arts. The exhibition is also supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. The accompanying catalogue has been underwritten by the Center for Spain in America and The Christian Humann Foundation.
Comments Galassi, “The past decade has witnessed a spurt of activity focusing on Picasso’s relationship with the Old Masters and his nineteenth-century predecessors, as well as with non-Western arts. However, this topic has not been examined specifically in terms of his drawing, where many of these references and relationships first appear. As drawing is a common language passed down and embellished by artists over generations, this particular area of the art of Picasso seemed ready-made for exploration. We have not tried to make direct comparisons between Picasso’s drawings and those of other artists, but to show the breadth and range of references on both a technical and stylistic level that give an historical grounding to his remarkable innovations and inventions—as well as his awareness of coming at the end of a great chain of artists.
A YOUNG IN TRAINING
As the son of a drawing instructor and provincial painter, José Ruiz Blasco, Picasso started to draw at a very young age. His formal academic education began in 1892 and continued over a period of five-and-a-half years. His Study of a Torso of 1895, rendered in pencil after a cast of a figure from the pediment of the Parthenon, shows the fifteen-year-old’s thorough working knowledge of rules of proportion, linear perspective, and chiaroscuro. Through such exercises, he learned the conventions for rendering the illusion of three-dimensional objects on a flat surface and absorbed principles of form handed down from antiquity and the Renaissance. Academic drawings such as this one are considered a means to an end, rather than independent artworks, conduits for transmitting the common language of classical art through an approved canon of models. Picasso would undoubtedly have also grasped through these exercises a sense of the endless possibility of formal and technical variation that connect generations of artists. At sixteen, Picasso entered the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid.
After a few months, however, he felt he had absorbed what was useful to him from academic training and left. He spent his days making copies after works by the Spanish masters in the Prado, drew from life with an informal group of artists, and filled sketchbooks with observations from his everyday surroundings. His rebellion extended beyond the academy, and he rejected the conventional career path his father had envisioned for him: climbing the ladder to a professorship through juried exhibitions. Returning to Barcelona, Picasso immersed himself in the thriving Catalan fin-de-siècle movement of Modernisme and worked briefly as an illustrator and designer of posters. Following his debut in February 1900 in his first solo exhibition at a local tavern, Picasso drew the Self-Portrait of 1901–2. The sheet, shown above, captures the energy and searching quality of a young artist attempting to establish himself in both modernist circles and in the grand tradition. Allusions to self-portraits by Poussin and Delacroix in the Louvre give a sense of his expanded horizons and of the place he sought to claim in his new milieu. In technique, the black chalk strokes form a force field around the head, recalling portraits by Van Gogh. The combination of references to Old Master and modern art would remain a feature of his drawing.
MOVE TO PARIS
In Paris, where he settled permanently in 1904 and where he would spend most of his career, Picasso was uniquely situated in time and place to create his combustive mix of traditional means and new formulations. Available to him were the Louvre’s extraordinary collections of painting and sculpture from antiquity to the mid-nineteenth century, and also an abundance of work by the revolutionary artists of the preceding generation—Cézanne, Degas, Monet, Renoir, and Gauguin—many of whom were still active. More to the point for his development as a draftsman, he also had access to the sweep of Western European drawing from the medieval period to the present. From the mid-nineteenth century onward, Paris was a major center for the display and sale of historic drawings. Paradoxically, as the emphasis on training in the classical manner diminished with the decline of the academic system and the rise of modern art, Old Master and nineteenth-century drawings were being more widely shown in exhibitions than they had been at any other time in the past.
At the Exposition Universelle of 1900, Roger Marx, a critic and passionate advocate for drawing, helped to organize a temporary exhibition on an unprecedented scale, featuring 1,400 sheets from public and private sources. A 1900 handbook of the Louvre lists 2,500 works on display on two floors. Original works by Pisanello, Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Dürer, Correggio, Rembrandt, and Ingres, to name only a few, were accessible to the public in Paris in the early twentieth century in greater quantity than at any previous point. At the same time, new developments in photographic methods of reproduction were bringing master drawings out of the connoisseur’s cabinet and making them available to a broader public through both luxury editions and more widely mass-produced portfolios.
Picasso’s academic training connected him to generations of artists who were formed through the same methods. His discerning eye would have quickly picked up ideas from his predecessors wherever he saw them. Although this kind of theft is part of the normal process for every artist, the wealth and breadth of direct and indirect references in his work to motifs, manners, and techniques of earlier artists strongly suggest that Picasso envisioned from the outset a place for himself in the grand tradition of drawing, which he aimed to perpetuate in reinvented form. Drawing was both a deeply serious and a playful pursuit for Picasso, and he took enormous pride in it. Throughout the first decade of the twentieth century, he made use of drawing in the traditional way as preparatory studies leading to multi-figure compositions in oil, and as independent works in pastel, watercolor, and gouache, examples of which are included in the show. Driven by his own expressive imperatives and responding to the general zeitgeist, he experimented with a variety of manners of representation.
Some works in the exhibition show him weaving together disparate manners of different eras into a new, complex entity. His large-scale gouache on cardboard, Acrobat in Blue of 1905, depicting a brooding adolescent in worker’s overalls, shows his awareness of Cézanne’s pared-down portraits. It has affinities as well with the simple and direct manner of early Renaissance artists, such as the Italian and French primitives, whose works were then the subjects of an important publication and a ground-breaking exhibition. While the head of the acrobat is delicately modeled with touches of pink and white, the outlines of the body are pronounced, emphasizing the hybrid nature of this work as a drawn painting.
REWORKING THE HUMAN BODY, EXPERIMENTS IN FORM AND SPACE
In Yellow Nude of 1907, at right, a figure study related to his landmark painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon of the same year, Picasso, like his Spanish forebears Jusepe Ribera and Francisco de Goya, found an outlet for his prodigious imagination through radical reworkings of the human body. The aggressiveness of the posture, ferocity of the masklike head, vibrant color, and bold brushwork encapsulate in one full-scale study of a single figure Picasso’s violent breaking away from the accepted norms of representation. In the final painting, he confronted head-on the concept of mimetic depiction that underlies Western European art from the Renaissance onward; in the study, however, aspects of traditional draftsmanship remain. The figure, seen from below, stands in contrapposto and strikes a pose with hands behind the back, like a live model on a dais. The slashing red and black parallel lines suggest the striations often found on tribal masks.
During the years between 1909 and 1914, Picasso worked in a close creative collaboration with Georges Braque. The two artists embarked on a series of exhilarating formal experiments that changed the course of twentieth-century art. Picasso’s 1909 drawing Still Life with Chocolate Pot partakes of a long tradition by Spanish masters of austere still lifes depicting a few everyday objects but shows Picasso’s movement toward a more structural language, building on the example of Cézanne’s constructive brushstroke and the loosening of linear perspective. Here, the objects rest on a radically upturned tabletop that pushes them to the surface of the sheet, and he creates tension between the sleek planes and sharp angles. Such experiments with form and space led to cubism, which we see here in its early stages.
PAPIER COLLÉ AND BEYOND
In his Cup of Coffee of 1912, Picasso takes inventive aim at the underlying methods and assumptions of naturalistic representation. This work and several other papiers collés form a climactic endpoint to a suite of works in various media on the time-honored theme of the still life with a musical instrument. Here, a guitar and a cup of coffee rest on a table with a fringed covering in an interior setting (referred to through a scrap of actual wallpaper). The drawing is an exhilarating battleground for dominance between different modes and methods of representation, and between the real and the represented. Hand-drawn parts of the guitar work with and against cutout shapes of paper that stand for other parts of the instrument. Picasso challenges the viewer to assemble the whole made of disparate parts that collide spatially and conceptually.
The papier collé challenges previously held concepts of what constitutes a drawing and enlarges the field on multiple levels. While bursting boundaries, literally and figuratively, in their intrinsic beauty and grandeur, works such as the Cup of Coffee, at right, also appear to be homages to the grand tradition of drawing. The blue and gray pieces of pasted paper and the tan ground are all standard colors of fine art paper used as drawing supports by artists for centuries. They lend to this radical work the look of an Old Master sheet, as if Picasso had literally cut up the past—the methods, materials, techniques, and supports of the rich history of drawings—and reassembled them to form a new order that literally incorporates into itself the history against which they are to be read.
By the onset of World War I, cubism was becoming the lingua franca of the avantgarde, and Picasso chose to distance himself from any semblance of a “school.” He worked instead in a variety of manners simultaneously. For example, he made occasional drawings in a meticulous style inspired by Ingres, as seen at left in his Portrait of Madame Georges Wildenstein of 1918. Such delicately rendered portraits showcase his graphic skills as on a par with Ingres. Here he renders the heavy volumes of the chair and figure of the subject in pure line, depicting her head and neck in a contrasting sculptural, illusionistic mode. Yet, Picasso introduces disjunctions in his drawing that carry his cubist sensibility back into the realm of naturalism and which mark this portrait as distinctly his own creation. An invitation from the poet Jean Cocteau to collaborate on a ballet that was to be produced by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes opened new vistas to Picasso through his working with avant-garde musicians and choreographers. The experience also renewed his longstanding love of the commedia dell’arte, which had featured prominently in his art in the early years of the century. Following the premiere of the Ballets Russes’s production of Pulcinella, for which Picasso made set and curtain designs and one costume design, he created his dazzling gouache Pierrot and Harlequin, in a flattened cubist manner. Here he continues to play with representational modes, juxtaposing realistically and diagrammatically defined hands.
INSPIRED BY THE ART OF ANTIQUITY
Picasso’s work with the ballet took him to Rome in the spring of 1917, his first direct contact with the art of antiquity and the Italian Renaissance and Baroque periods. He traveled to the sites and museums of Florence, Naples, Herculaneum, and Pompeii, and renewed his powerful ties to the classical Mediterranean heritage of his homeland. Picasso returned to a sculptural mode in many of his drawings of the early 1920s. In 1921 he spent the summer in the village of Fontainebleau, in close proximity to the Renaissance château with its frescoes by Italian mannerist artists and gardens with fountains and statuary. During this exceptionally fruitful period and in the months following his return to Paris, Picasso produced a group of works in a variety of media featuring robust, monumental female figures, both contemporary and classical. In the one of these drawings, Head of a Woman, the chalky surface and chiseled features evoke a generic GrecoRoman head with its smooth surface, deep-set blank eyes, and simplified form, as seen in the continuous line of the arc of the brow and the straight line of the nose. This sheet recalls the drawings Picasso made from prints and casts after classical sculpture during his first years at the academy to learn the conventions of classical draftsmanship. Like the most disembodied of his cubist figure drawings, this monumental work is about the artifice of art—particularly of drawing. With equal affinity to both painting and sculpture, this tour-de-force of draftsmanship takes a place in a long line of variations on classical forms and themes with a contemporary twist: the close-up view and cropping of the image are also evocative of photography.