Gagosian Gallery’s show Picasso & the Camera is the art bargain of the season.
By David D’Arcy
Pablo Picasso had an omnivorous appetite for image-making and artistic media – painting, drawing, sculpture, collage, tapestry, and ceramics. He was also drawn to moving pictures. And to photography as well, a new technology that seemed to threaten the venerable practice of painting. Not with this artist. As Picasso did with everything that he got his hands on, he found ways to make photography work for him.
On view through January 3 in one enormous room at the Gagosian Gallery on West 21st Street in New York, Picasso & the Camera displays some of the results. Granted, photography did more for Picasso than the artist did for photography, but that does not make the exhibit any less worthy of a visit. The interaction illuminates Picasso’s art in unexpected ways.
Picasso & the Camera doesn’t fit the template of the standard museum exhibition, although its ambition and the works of art on view would be the envy of most institutions. The thrust of the show is biographical as well as aesthetic; it is curated by John Richardson, the Picasso biographer who at the age of ninety is now deep into the fourth volume of an unprecedented study of the artist’s life and work.The show’s focus on one medium is exacting, but it ranges chronologically over most of the artist’s life
Because the Gagosian Gallery is a commercial gallery, there’s no admission fee – which makes it a refreshing exception in overpriced New York. And, on my visits, I never had to wait on line. That makes Picasso & the Camera, applauded by Jed Perl in the New York Review of Books as well as other critics, the art bargain of the season.
Most of the work on view is loaned by the Picasso family, which means that images and objects rarely seen by the public are put in the service of a subject that’s barely been studied.
Bear in mind that Picasso was not Vivien Maier, the French-born nanny in Chicago who was revealed — after her death — to have taken thousands of photographs of the street life around her for decades, most of which she never developed. Picasso’s lifelong fling with photography was anything but secret.
And don’t expect revelations about major moments like the creation of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), which influenced the portrayal of human figures (especially women) in art forever, or Guernica (1938), which shaped how artists depicted modern combat. Instead, though some of the pictures are likely to surprise, Picasso & the Camera is, above all, a window onto this artist’s life and creative process.
Long before he was famous, as a young man in a cities such as Barcelona or Paris, Picasso could not have escaped photography. His interest was in painting, yet photography emboldened him. For evidence, Richardson offers the Spanish hill town of Horta de Ebro.
In 1909, Picasso spent part of a summer in the tiny village, which in photographs looks like a tight knot of walls and roofs, constructed in what looks like a contained sphere on a hill. In Picasso’s paintings of Horta – early experiments in cubism, which condensed and distilled perception onto a flat picture plane – those structures look as if they intersect and overlap like geometric forms. Photographs of Horta from a distance helped point the way to that style. In fact, Picasso often hung photographs on the walls of his studio: not as souvenirs of where he’d been, but as images of what he might try to paint, and surpass. During that period, he had two assets on his side that photography lacked – scale and color.
The photographic prints in the show, through the ’30s, tend to be disarmingly small, sometimes faded, requiring your eyes to adjust before you can look carefully. The more you look at Horta de Ebro in photographs, the more it looks like a template for the larger colorful paintings hanging beside it.
Photography also figured into Picasso’s depiction of his first wife, the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova, who was a favorite subject of his for years, even after their romance soured. Picasso’s marriage in 1918 to the classically beautiful dancer from the Ballets Russes coincided with a quest for respectability that persisted into the early ’20s. In photographs (that Picasso snapped as if he was a kid with a new toy) and in paintings, she is just that — pure propriety. Picasso, on to a naturalistic style by then, paints her with a precision that could have been inspired by his study of the Old Masters or photography.
As the decade continued, Picasso increasingly chafed at propriety. The camera makes Olga looks forlorn and distant; he soon became impatient with a proper wife. A monochrome charcoal drawing from 1921 – Femme au Missel (Woman with a Missal) – suggests a cartoon that Rene Magritte might have imagined decades later. It is a torso in a dress drawn with equal amounts of realistic care and whimsy: a figure is without a head – the musings of a bored husband. In his painting Maternity (1921), Picasso paints her and his son Pablo as if they were plump puppets. (A photograph might have been the inspiration for the caricature.) Later, in the odd, grotesquely serpentine Le Repos (Repose) of 1932, Olga is envisioned as coming apart: gritting teeth sit at the end of one of the many tendrils that evoke her ballet-trained legs.
Picasso’s turn away from Olga can be tracked through photography. In 1927, he spotted a blonde girl of 16 at the Samaritaine department store in Paris. Marie-Therese Walter would become his mistress for a decade, the mother of his first daughter, and the muse for a shameless sensuality that was expressed in his paintings, drawings, and sculptures. By the early ’30s, Picasso retreated to Boisgeloup, a seigneurial estate north of Paris where he experimented with sculptures inspired by the young girl. The works were amalgamations of erotic bulges and protuberances, but the faces of those odes to sex were inspired by Marie-Therese.
Picasso kept careful photographic records of these sculptures. A number of the pictures were taken by the photographer Brassai (a friend), some by a young dancer named Boris Kochno (who had worked with the Ballets Russes and knew that the artist was cheating on Olga), and a few were taken by Picasso himself. The latter, which have never been exhibited before, are more than archival snapshots. One evening, after seeing how car headlights were used to light a chateau for a famous Brassai photograph, Picasso improvised a spotlight (a kerosene lamp) inside his studio, manipulating the flame to illuminate his sculptures, heightening the chiaroscuro created by the room’s shadows. As Richardson explains in the exhibition catalogue, “Picasso said, ‘For a sculpture to attain maximum rotundity, the bright parts must be brighter than the rest of the surface, the dark parts much darker. It’s that simple.’ That simple, yet spoken like a film director. Lit to highlight the voluptuous curves of the sculptures as well as the hand-toned textures of the plaster, the figures in these photographs are unimaginably lifelike.
One of Brassai’s photographs is particularly memorable because it neatly discloses the transformation of Picasso’s life at the time. Up front is the stiff proper Olga, seated sourly, and alone, in front of the building that the artist used for his studio. Behind her the door is open, revealing a bulbous new sculpture inspired by Marie-Therese. One era of Picasso’s life had given way to another. One photograph, staged by Picasso, says it all.
Soon Marie-Therese was the one who would be seen in increasingly surreal shapes, and photography plays a role here. Picasso began to depict Marie-Therese as a creature swimming in water, with flippers instead of arms. The amphibious vision wasn’t an accident. At the time, Picasso and other artists had seen pioneering underwater films by Paul Painleve (some of the footage is projected in the Gagosian Gallery). The art world was fascinated by the pliability and graceful gestures of octopi and other sea creatures. The effect of the Painleve footage is hypnotic, but these images would turn dark for Picasso, who grew bored with his young lover. His depictions of water sirens became monstrous.
Picasso moved on to another female companion. This time she was a photographer and a surrealist, Dora Maar. Dark-haired, with piercing blue eyes, Dora would be the subject of a decade of portraits by Picasso, who juxtaposed parts of her face in askew angles: the surrealistic result was to break her likeness into fragments that suggested a variety of emotions. Dora’s rarely seen photographs from that time reflect a similarly tumultuous personality, though in an austere black and white.
Picasso was rarely doing only one thing at a time; he was not just painting portraits of his lovers. During the ’30s, he was also given a book on Greek art (L’art en Grece, Art in Greece), by his publisher, Christian Zervos. Picasso had seen and sketched classical sculpture at the Louvre and in Naples (in 1918), but these images put these works in a new perspective. We see how those photographs (pinned on the walls of his studio) found their way into paintings and sculptures. The bulges and swellings of Picasso’s effigies to Marie-Therese resonate with the curves on the sculpture of a Greek helmet in L’art en Grece. A Greek figure carrying a calf on his shoulders became an oft-used model for Picasso’s sculptures of a man carrying a sheep. The artist also seems to be parodying this image in a photograph where he is carrying his own dog.
Richardson’s archaeology in Picasso & the Camera goes beyond examining the antiquities among Picasso’s camera-inspired sources. Photographers whose work has been neglected are given another crucial look, such as Boris Kochno, who shot some of Picasso’s plaster sculptures. There is a fascinating examination of Andre Villers, a photographer who convinced Picasso to collaborate on a series called Diurnes (Of the Day), where the two took black and white photographs and then cut them up and constructed collages in which the images on the photos ended up forming new compositions. The Diurnes are playful and clever, but there’s an intriguing conceptual factor at work here as well. Picasso is collaborating with a photographer, creating handmade works out of images that have been cut into overlapping fragments. Forty years after Horta de Ebro, the exhibition’s first example of Picasso’s use of photography to inspire his art, we have what looks like ‘Cubism — The Remix.’
There’s a lot more here. We see films with and by Man Ray (the American painter who became a photographer), and clips from Le Mystere Picasso, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1956 experiment in filming Picasso painting on a clear glass surface, the camera recording him from the other side. It didn’t take much to get Picasso to agree to make the documentary – he wanted to observe how he worked. The finished product doesn’t reveal all that much about the artist’s process, but his dance-like image-making, at the age 75, is a delight to watch.
Picasso was not allergic to his own image; he loved to be photographed. Those images – some familiar, most not — are also part of the story Richardson tells in this show. For better or worse, by the time that Picasso was in his seventies – and he lived into his nineties – he risked the overexposure that comes with courting celebrity. Photographs of the baldheaded master, usually grinning contentedly, became as well-known as Guernica (1937).
Picasso & the Camera is not the first look at how photography influenced modernist painters. An enterprising researcher is sure to take up the effect on Picasso (and others?) of the photographs of carnage from the Spanish Civil War, the photos published in newspapers and in propaganda posters that made the brutality of that conflict visible to the public, and eventually helped spawn Guernica. Still, by training such as revelatory lens on Picasso and photography, Richardson has shown just how much there is to be learned.
Jacqueline Roque, Picasso’s second wife and last companion, serves as the subject for a dazzling range of paintings at the Pace Gallery (though January 10) on 524 West 25th Street, a few blocks north of the Gagosian Gallery. Every work in Picasso & Jacqueline: The Evolution of Style is inspired by her face — dark almond eyes and dark hair. Hundreds of her likenesses take the visitor through art history, mythology, and Picasso’s restless imagination. When you walk through the door, you encounter a wall dedicated to photographs – a nod to Picasso & the Camera?
Pace Gallery on 32 East 57th Street is presenting the second part of the same exhibition. Jacqueline is once again the touchstone, this time for works on paper, mainly portraits that were created in the last 20 years of Picasso’s life. The artist’s considerable gifts as a draftsman and a watercolorist are on splendid display. Admission is free at both venues.
David D’Arcy, who lives in New York, is a programmer for the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel. He reviews films for Screen International. His film blog, Outtakes, is at artinfo.com. He writes about art for many publications, including The Art Newspaper. He produced and co-wrote the documentary, Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a Nazi-looted painting found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.