Jhere are eight in the picture, not counting the dog. In the center sits the writer Guillaume Apollinaire, his hands resting on his knees. On the right, the artist herself, Marie Laurencin. On the left is novelist Gertrude Stein.
Didier Ottinger, deputy director of the Center Pompidou in Paris, points out these famous names, then draws my attention to a dark-eyed man with wide bangs, just behind Apollinaire’s left shoulder. He is Pablo Picasso – the man at the center of the exhibition we are going to browse, inside the National Gallery of Victoria.
When an exhibition revolves around a famous artist “in conversation”, a cynical voice in my mind whispers that maybe it’s just a way of magnifying things, that a gallery couldn’t get enough attention. works by the artist she really wanted. This is certainly not the case here. The Picasso Century, developed for the NGV by the Center Pompidou and the Musée national Picasso-Paris, is a triumph of 10 years of preparation, from idea to final form. That was the time it took to ensure that all the key works – in high demand by galleries around the world – would be available to tell the story Ottinger had planned.
Relationships are central to the Picasso Century, and Apollinaire et ses amis (1909) helps set the tone. While the presence of the titular artist is strongly felt throughout, the exhibit unfolds more like a novel rather than a monologue. Picasso is put into context: the world around him and, more importantly, the people who inspired him – and vice versa.
“The very first idea I had for the show was to demonstrate that a genius did not come out of nowhere, but someone who is able to grasp and translate all the values of an era – the painful events, the good ideas, the bad ideas,” Ottinger says. “A genius is a sponge, not someone who floats above the world.”
The rooms are structured chronologically, starting in the early 1900s when Picasso first moved to Paris. Throughout, his works are complemented by those of his contemporaries, showing how they influenced and borrowed from each other. A room is devoted to the development of Cubism, on which Picasso worked in close collaboration with the artist Georges Braque. Another follows the progression of surrealism. The two world wars also play an important role, literally shattering the exhibition and showing how it fractured and changed the art world.
NGV Senior Curator Miranda Wallace likens the exhibit to an adventure to choose from: “There’s a lot in there, and a lot of stories to tell.” You can appreciate each work individually and it’s a rare opportunity to see so many significant works by Picasso in one place. But, as a walk through history, as a story of how individuals are shaped and broken by the world around them, it is particularly poignant.
Tracking the evolution – and then the frequent disintegration – of Picasso’s relationships is one of the most gripping aspects of the exhibition. Very early on, the work of Picasso and Braque is difficult to distinguish. “They were very close friends, like brothers, saw each other every day, every evening in the studio, and began the great adventure of Cubism,” Ottinger tells me.
But after the First World War, the tone changed. The room is filled with paintings that seem more realistic, more classic; it’s the reflection of a change in attitude, explains Ottinger: “Before the war, it was invention, it was cubism, the future and then all of a sudden it broke. This hope, this movement, has been shattered.
After the war, the relationship between Braque and Picasso changed forever. “Picasso used to say that in 1914 Braque went to war and I never saw him again,” says Ottinger – not literally, but the man Picasso knew before was gone.
“During two years [Braque] couldn’t paint,” adds Wallace. “When he started painting again… his paintings are very different.”
There are connections everywhere. There’s the push and pull between Picasso and Matisse – the two were introduced by Gertrude Stein and enjoyed a friendly rivalry throughout their careers. “When Matisse died in 1954, Picasso decided to extend Matisse’s work by taking up his subject, and going further… he didn’t dare to do that during Matisse’s lifetime”, explains Ottinger. There is also his generous support and collaboration with artists – including Alberto Giacometti and Wifredo Lam – to the point where they become potential rivals.
Picasso’s strained relationships with his wives and girlfriends also feature in the exhibit. There are works by surrealist painter and photographer Dora Maar, as well as artist Françoise Gilot. And halfway through, there is a revealing trilogy of paintings. At the center is Figures by the Sea (1931), an energetic and somewhat lustful picture, thought to be inspired by Picasso’s relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter, whom he met when he was 17. year. On the left, Reclining Woman (1932). “Marie-Thérèse, the new lover,” explains Ottinger. And on the right there is Woman with a stylus (1931), a small, violent and disturbing painting of a female figure hovering over a bleeding man with a needle. It is believed to be a depiction of Picasso’s wife, Olga Khokhlova – a far cry from Portrait of Olga in an Armchair (1918), a warm portrait where she gazes intently at the viewer, beautiful and dotted with color .
At the heart of this exhibition is the influence and way Picasso borrowed and learned from others. “He’s not adopting someone else’s style, it’s often more of a subtle connection,” says Wallace. Even so, some artists did not like to be a source of inspiration; when he learned that Picasso was visiting, the sculptor Constantin Brâncuși “hid his sculptures so that Picasso wouldn’t see them”, she explains. “He would take ideas…and then turn them into something quite original. It was kind of a boring thing. It wasn’t just imitation – it was like borrowing, transforming and sometimes improving.
By exhibiting his paintings, sculptures and ceramics alongside the works of the artists who surrounded him during his life, we see how the jealousy, cruelty, genius and generosity of Picasso are linked. “He was not… an easy personality,” Wallace said.
“He is a man who is interested in new ways of making art. Novelty, innovation is something absolutely important to him. It never repeats itself. He opens a door, he goes to the back of the room, sees every corner, then comes back to another door,” says Ottinger. “It’s Picasso.”
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