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Picasso at Rest (Not)

Picasso excelled at every artistic medium he took up — and if you doubt it, check out the Picasso etchings currently at the Bruce Museum. The artist's "life force" is unmistakable...

Pablo Picasso was already famous, and rich, by 1933. As a preternaturally talented son of a Spanish painter, he learned the rules of art; as a young man, he consistently broke the rules, as every great artist must; by middle age, he saw his rule-breaking — most famously through Cubism, before and during World War I — become accepted, “the new normal.” But acceptance didn't sit well with Picasso: a life-long Communist, serial philanderer and artistic provocateur, he was incapable of standing still, always needed to be in the minority, an exile, a man apart.

So it's impossible not to smile while walking through an exhibit at Greenwich's Bruce Museum of Picasso prints from the 1930s. The show, drawn from the “Vollard Suite” of 100 copper-plate etchings collected by art dealer Ambroise Vollard, initially seems deeply conservative, as neoclassical as you can get; naked women, naked men, giant busts of heroic figures, the occasional animal or Greco-Roman wreath and lots of lounging around. During these years Picasso had taken up with a teenage mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walker (the subject of his classic 1932 painting “La Reve”), but the prints aren't erotic: sexy, yes, but in an almost formal way.

This is what life is supposed to be, Picasso seems to be saying in this Vollard Suite grouping, known in the art world as “The Sculptor's Studio”: beautiful, peaceful, loving, natural, uncomplicated. In the Suite years (Vollard was one of Spain-born Picasso's earliest supporters in Paris) Picasso spent much of his time sculpting Marie-Therese in plaster, as if he'd decided two dimensions weren't enough.

But he hadn't, of course — the evidence is right before you — and that gives the show (call it "The Artist at Middle Age Looking for New Ways of Seeing") great wit.  Most of the prints seem like drawings, dashed off in a few minutes: the lines are full of life — look at Sculptor, Model Wearing Mask, and Statue of Standing Nude, or Heads of Sculptor and Model, and Statue of a Striding Youth — and you sense a transient moment forever captured. What artist needs a third dimension, when he can draw like that? Only a great one, an artist who's fully mastered his craft, who longs for challenge, discovery.

The simplicity in these prints deceives: as one art dealer has noted, Picasso invented at least one new print-making technique during this period (the "sugar lift"), and his etching lines can “match the hand of Rembrandt.” That Dutch artist is the subject of four other etchings not seen here... perhaps appropriately, because the other Vollard Suite groupings contain more violent and sexual images, not such a good fit at the family-friendly Bruce.

Picasso makes his studio an idyllic world of the senses. Though darkness and danger sometimes creep in, as noted above, you sense Picasso attempting to block out “the real world.” He had reason to: while essentially non-political, despite his avowed Communism, Picasso knew of Hitler's rise in Germany in the early 1930s, and the unrest in his native country that would lead to the Spanish Civil War, the bombing of Guernica in 1937, and his famous painting of the scene. In his studio, little seems to happen: people simply exist, look, appreciate.

It's almost jarring when these Greco-Roman creatures ponder sculptures from the Surrealist school, or modern busts by Picasso himself... but that's the artist's sly way of saying art is timeless, creates its own language.

Picasso's mother claimed her famous son's first word was “piz,” a shortening of the Spanish word for “pencil,” lápiz. The story is likely apocryphal... but after seeing this exhibit (which closes October 16), you'll believe it anyway.

Running concurrently with this show — until September 4 — is “Power Incarnate: Allan Stone’s Collection of Sculpture from the Congo,” an appropriate pairing given Picasso's early interest in “primitive” art (though he denied the African-mask influence in 1907's ground-breaking “Les Demoiselles d'Avignon”). More on "Power" in a later column — including its cutting-edge use of cellphones (your own!) to describe objects in display cases.

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