The Guggenheim Museum in New York City is the perfect venue for hosting great chronological exhibitions of art. Ascend the spiraling ramps and you are able to understand the course of an artistic era in its totality or the development of a national school of art, as was the case in the spectacular 2005 presentation of Russian art from its Byzantine-inspired roots to the post-Soviet present. But seldom have a museum and a special exhibition been so perfectly matched as Guggenheim New York and its present show, Picasso Black and White.
Ranging from 1904 to 1971, Picasso Black and White features 118 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper by Picasso. Thirty-eight of these works of art are appearing for the first time in the United States. This great exhibition, which moves to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston in February 2013, presents a striking, new interpretation of Picasso’s artistic vision.
Throughout his long life as an artist, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) utilized a restricted black-and-white palette to create masterworks that are often overpowering in their intensity. When you stand and look across the open space of the Guggenheim at the works on display in this remarkable exhibition, you begin to understand Picasso’s assertion that color can weaken composition. Seen from a distance, a painting like The Milliner’s Workshop (1926) reveals its integral elements with stunning immediacy. And in the stark, white exhibition space of the Guggenheim, Head of a Horse, Sketch for Guernica (1937), vividly displays the primal force, the eruption of creative vision into time and space, which lies at the heart of all truly great art.
Such striking works, articulated with muted coloration (some sepia and ochre tones occasionally blending in), are a forceful reminder of the black-and-white movie news reels and half-tone newspaper photos that shaped the consciousness of the world throughout most of the twentieth century.
This of course was “Picasso’s Century.” Deliberately courting controversy, Picasso’s name often figured in the headlines. But Picasso, master of publicity though he was, went a major stride beyond merely manipulating the media formats of the era. With his black-and-white paintings and sculptures, Picasso integrated his psychological insights directly into the mainstream of modern art.
Picasso’s “black-and-whites” also confirm the importance of his Spanish heritage. Though he lived most of his life in France, Picasso never ceased being a Spaniard. Indeed, because he languished in exile due to his opposition to the political regime of Francisco Franco, whom he detested, Picasso emphasized Spanish themes in his work as a counter-point to Franco’s fascism. By hearkening back to earlier masterpieces such Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez, Picasso asserted that Spanish culture would outlast Franco, in-part through his own black-and-white works of art.
As the curator of the Guggenheim exhibit, Carmen Giménez, notes, “Picasso used this distinctive motif to explore a centuries-long tradition of Spanish masters, such as El Greco, José de Ribera, Francisco de Zurbarán, Diego Velázquez, and Francisco de Goya, whose use of black and gray was predominant.”
Picasso’s reliance on a limited palette can be traced back to his Blue Period, the time spent mourning the death of his friend Carlos Casagemas in 1901, and the subsequent, life-affirming Rose period beginning in 1905. On display in the Guggenheim exhibit are two works from these early phases which reveal the artist’s commitment to a limited color palette.
Woman Ironing, painted in 1905, was one of Picasso’s last Blue Period works. The blue tones in this powerful painting are so minimal and subdued that it might be appropriately described as the first of Picasso’s Black-and-White Period. Indeed, that is how Woman Ironing is positioned in the exhibition. In theme and execution, too, Picasso evoked the struggle of life with this depiction of toil. However desperate the plight may appear of Woman Ironing, this transitional work points to survival rather than death, to the determination of the human will to make one’s mark on a hostile or indifferent environment.
Picasso’s Rose Period was brief in duration, with the representative work on display in the Guggenheim show, Man, Woman, and Child (1906), coming toward the end of this phase. Here again tones of black and gray predominate, the rose in the picture being limited to the hint of pink in the woman’s cheek. This is more than a note of passing interest because it underscores the fact that Picasso used what he felt he needed in his art to suit his aim. The “periods” and “movements” which others claimed to see in his work were of less interest to Picasso than the works themselves.
Picasso made that point when he declared, “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. When I have found something to express, I have done it without thinking of the past or the future… If the subjects I have wanted to express have suggested different ways of expression, I haven’t hesitated to adopt them.”
Picasso’s devotion to his art, rather than other’s definitions of it, reveals the centrality of the black-and-white palette he frequently used. Form mattered most of all in the expression of what he envisioned. Color was of secondary importance, utilized only as needed.
The Milliner’s Workshop of 1926 is in some respects the key work of art in the Guggenheim exhibit. It was painted following Picasso’s embrace of classical drawing during the post-World War I “Return to Order” era. This period of Picasso’s shape-shifting art is represented by Man with Pipe created in 1923. An exquisite work in the tradition of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres or Edgar Degas, Man with Pipe gave no indication of the repeated revolutions to come in Picasso’s oeuvre following The Milliner’s Workshop.
Picasso claimed that The Milliner’s Workshop was inspired by watching dress-makers in the workshop across the street from his studio. The work marks a momentary return to Cubism but articulates the women’s bodies with curving, biomorphic forms rather than the hard-edged angularity in Accordionist from the summer of 1911. As a result of this more fluid composition, The Milliner’s Workshop has a dreamlike feel pointing to Picasso’s flirtation with Surrealism. But the really notable aspect of this remarkable painting, the first that Picasso donated to a museum, is the degree of strength and authenticity it projects. It is the kind of painting that you would expect to be painted in vibrant colors. But it succeeds quite readily on the strength of its form alone. And it succeeds, as well, without conforming to a “period” or “ism.”
Picasso’s embrace of Surrealism is represented by several works which have as their subject his then mistress during the late 1920’s and early 30’s, Marie-Thérèse Walther. For Picasso, this was a time of personal turmoil. He was engaged in an intractable divorce dispute with his wife, the ballerina, Olga Khokhlova. Worse torment ensued with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Surrealism was the perfect means to respond to the conflict’s horror and destruction.
Picasso’s response to the Spanish Civil War was his masterpiece, Guernica, which he painted to be displayed in the pavilion of the Spanish Republic at the 1937 International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life in Paris. At this time, the Nazis and Italian Fascists on one side and the Soviet Union on the other were combat-testing their tanks and aircraft in Spain. In Paris, the International Exposition was the site of propaganda warfare that complemented the carnage.
The two theaters of war came together on April 26, 1937. German and Italian warplanes destroyed the Basque town of Guernica. The atrocity was immediately reported by George Steer, war correspondent for the Times of London, and then in documentary films shown worldwide.
Picasso, casting about for a theme for a work commissioned by the Republican government of Spain, found his subject in Guernica. In a 1954 essay, the art writer John Berger emphasized the centrality of this event to Picasso. With Guernica, Berger notes, Picasso was able to transcend his own personal tragedy, which was “that for most of his life he has failed to find themes to do himself justice.”
Guernica, in fact, was the summation of Picasso’s entire artistic career, as he integrated elements from all his “periods” – Symbolism, Cubism, homage to ancient Iberian art, classical culture – in one indelible assertion of humanity assaulted by war.
“Guernica has deservedly become the one legendary painting of this century,” John Berger wrote, “and although works of art can perpetuate legends, they do not create then.”
On display in the Guggenheim exhibit is a preparatory sketch of the head of the rearing horse in Guernica. It differs significantly from the finished version. But it is a fitting representation of the entire creative process which led to the unveiling of the work in Paris in 1937, its long sojourn at the Museum of Modern Art in New York during the years of the Franco regime and its eventual return to Spain in 1981.
Picasso’s subsequent career is often described as a let-down from the creative peak of Guernica. Picasso, this thesis contends, churned out paintings to pay his bills or derivative works like his series of 58 interpretations of Las Meninas, the 1656 masterpiece by Diego Velázquez. The Guggenheim has one of the series (Picasso did versions in color as well as black-and-white) on display. It is clear from this work, that, however much Picasso was reconfiguring Las Meninas to suit his own ends, he was doing so as a Spaniard and as an artist. A great and still inspired artist.
In 1962, Picasso further refuted the myth of his decline with a great work that echoed Guernica. This was his reworking of the incident from Roman mythology, The Rape of the Sabines. The Romans, according ancient myth, seized women from the neighboring Sabine tribe to help perpetuate their race. The incident was painted countless times and in countless interpretations. Picasso depicted it in keeping with the headlines in 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The horse from Guernica reappears, but this time as the steed for one of the Riders of the Apocalypse.
Picasso Black and White, ironically, is the latest skirmish in the long controversy of whether color or design is paramount in art. The irony here is that Picasso’s black-and-whites establish the primacy of design, a victory without a victor. Picasso, himself, could not have cared less for the contested theories in this dispute reaching back to Renaissance Florence and its rival, Venice.
Picasso Black and White reminds us once again that it is the vision of the individual artist that matters, regardless of the subject or medium used to express it. That is the lesson of Picasso’s life and one that apparently must be learned and re-learned by each succeeding generation. Art is what counts.
Picasso Black and White appears at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, October 5, 2012 – January 23, 2013, followed by a presentation at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, from February 24–May 27, 2013.