We visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York City to enjoy the widely acclaimed exhibition Picasso Sculpture. And yes, it was as good, or better than the buildup in the New York Times review by critic Roberta Smith on 10 Sept. 2015: “Many exhibitions are good, some are great and a very few are tantamount to works of art in their own right — for their clarity, lyricism and accumulative wisdom. The Museum of Modern Art’s staggering Picasso Sculpture is in the third category. Large, ambitious and unavoidably, dizzyingly peripatetic, this is a once-in-a-lifetime event. It sustains its vision through a ring of 11 grand spaces on the museum’s fourth floor, tracing the serial genre-bending forays into three dimensions wrought by this 20th-century titan of painting. Each bout lasted a few years and was different from the one before, and each has been given its own gallery, more or less.” [Note to our readers: MOMA’s gallery guide notes are the basis for the descriptions that follow.]
Picasso Sculpture is a sweeping survey of Pablo Picasso’s innovative and influential work in three dimensions. This [is] the first such museum exhibition in the United States in nearly half a century.
Over the course of his long career, Picasso devoted himself to sculpture wholeheartedly, if episodically, using both traditional and unconventional materials and techniques. Unlike painting, in which he was formally trained and through which he made his living, sculpture occupied a uniquely personal and experimental status for Picasso. He approached the medium with the freedom of a self-taught artist, ready to break all the rules. This attitude led him to develop a deep fondness for his sculptures, to which the many photographs of his studios and homes bear witness. Treating them almost as members of his household, he cherished the sculptures’ company and enjoyed re-creating them in a variety of materials and situations. Picasso kept the majority in his private possession during his lifetime. It was only in 1966, through the large Paris retrospective Hommage à Picasso, that the public became fully aware of this side of his work. Following that exhibition, in 1967 The Museum of Modern Art organized The Sculpture of Picasso, which until now was the first and only exhibition on this continent to display a large number of the artist’s sculptures.
Picasso Sculpture focuses on the artist’s lifelong work with sculpture, with a particular focus on his use of materials and processes. The exhibition, which features more than 100 sculptures, complemented by selected works on paper and photographs, aims to advance the understanding of what sculpture was for Picasso, and of how he revolutionized its history through a lifelong commitment to constant reinvention. The exhibition is organized in chapters corresponding to the distinct periods during which Picasso devoted himself to sculpture, each time exploring with fresh intensity the modern possibilities of this ancient art form. Organized by The Museum of Modern Art in collaboration with the Musée national Picasso – Paris.
THE CUBIST YEARS, 1912 – 1915. During the fall of 1912, Picasso returned to making sculpture after a hiatus of three years. Among the first works he realized was a cardboard Guitar [pictured at the top of this blog post], whose open structure allowed him to introduce negative space into the solid forms customary for sculpture at that time. Its humble still-life subject was also a first, as was Picasso’s decision to employ simple craft processes like cutting, folding and threading. In early 1914, Picasso reiterated his Guitar in sheet metal…The hybrid character of Picasso’s Guitar is typical of the works in this gallery. Picasso’s ongoing project during these years was to upend categorical distinctions: Things that hang on the wall nevertheless incorporate space, along with a dazzling range of found materials…
In spring 1914 Picasso created an edition of six unique versions of the sculpture Glass of Absinthe. These are reunited here for the first time since they were in the artist’s studio. Conventionally, works within a bronze edition look the same. Working against tradition, Picasso decorated the surface of each of his six small sculptures differently. Each incorporates a store-bought absinthe spoon, which holds a painted bronze depiction of the sugar cube over which the liquer would be poured into the glass.
THE MONUMENT TO APOLLINAIRE, 1927 – 1931
Picasso’s reengagement with sculpture at the end of the 1920s had roots in a commission to create a monument for the tomb of the poet and critic Guilluame Apollinaire [a close friend], who had died in 1918 and was buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris…Despite several rounds of effort, none of the multiple ideas that Picasso offered the memorial committee were accepted. Picasso’s monumental Woman in the Garden was his final and most ambitious effort to create a memorial sculpture for Apollinaire. It is composed from a large number of salvaged metal elements, welded together and unified by an overall coating of white paint…it reflects in form and spirit Picasso’s admiration for the African and Oceanic figures he avidly collected.
THE BOISGELOUP SCULPTURE STUDIO, 1930 – 1932
In June 1930 Picasso purchased the Château de Boisgeloup, a property forty-five miles (72 kilometers) northwest of Paris. There, for the first time, he had enough space to set up his own sculpture studio, converting the horse stables for this purpose….His signature Boisgeloup material…was luminous white plaster, which was relatively easy to obtain, dried quickly, and could be modeled, incised, carved, and added to over time. Working intensively with plaster… Picasso commenced an entirely new phase of sculpture making that would last for about four years.
It was in Boisgeloup that Picasso produced his first truly monumental figures in the round, including an imposing series of simultaneously female and phallic heads. There is a pronounced resemblance between the features of these works and those of Marie-Thérèse Walter, who was his lover during this period. They are hardly, however, literal depictions. Their extraordinary forms provide a vivid parallel to the Surrealist movement’s contemporaneous embrace of overtly erotic, metamorphic imagery. Noses, mouths, and eyes double as male and female sexual organs, and the sculptures’ surfaces conjure both the softness of flesh and the unforgiving hardness of bone. Picasso’s love of visual punning, along with his ability to render the familiar deeply strange, is prominently on display in these works.
THE WAR YEARS, 1939 – 1945
Picasso was one of the few artists condemned by the Germans as “degenerate” to remain in occupied Paris during World War II. Having declined many offers of emigration, he lived and worked at 7, rue des Grands-Augustines, on the Left Bank…Picasso again began modeling, somehow managing to obtain enough clay and plaster to produce an imposing population of human and animal figures for his crowded spaces. All bronze casting was prohibited, as precious metal was reserved for wartime purposes. But Picasso had his sculptures secretly transported to and from the foundry by night; in this dangerous context, the traditional practice of bronze casting became a bold act of defiance…
The largest work of this period is the seven-foot-tall Man with a Lamb, modeled in clay in early 1943. Although this sculpture was made in one day, frantically assembled on an armature that was too weak for the quantities of clay Picasso piled upon it, it was the product of months of reflection and sketches dating back to the previous summer.
Picasso’s fondness for witty assemblage did not altogether disappear during these somber times. Bull’s Head is simply a strategic pairing of a leather bicycle seat and a pair of metal handlebars, later cast in bronze. [Like the guitar, the bull is a recurring subject of Picasso’s sculptures over the years, particularly as he changes media.]
VALLAURIS CERAMICS AND ASSEMBLAGES, 1945 – 1953
Paris was liberated in August 1944, and the following summer Picasso visited the French Riviera for the first time in many years. This renewed contact with the Mediterranean’s sun, sand, and light, along with its deep connections to classical Greek and Roman culture, brought about a new phase in Picasso’s sculpture. During the summer of 1946 he visited the ceramics workshop of George and Suzanne Ramie in the town of Vallauris and began to experiment in a medium that dated back to ancient times but was new to him. Over the course of the next few years, his enthusiasm for ceramics led him to make the town of Vallauris his primary residence, and to produce ceramics works in great numbers.
VALLAURIS AND CANNES ASSEMBLAGES, 1952 – 1958
Picasso’s work in assemblage intensified throughout the early 1950’s, as he produced larger and ever more complex sculptures constructed from everyday objects…No matter how improbably the sculpture’s components were, or how whimsical their subjects, naturalism was always Picasso’s goal. Little Girl Jumping Rope seems to defy gravity as much as does a real child in midair.
The next chapter of Picasso’s sculptural work took an unpredictable turn away from the robustly modeled forms of the Vallauris ceramics and assemblages toward constructions that were decidedly planar and frontal in nature. In 1955, the artist moved with his partner Jacqueline Roque to the villa La Californie, outside Cannes. This elegant residential neighborhood had no junkyard readily at hand, as in Vallauris, but the artist found new ways to satisfy his passion for scavenging. Wood sculptures made from lumber scraps and other salvaged items took center stage in the years 1956 – 58. Bits of old furniture, crates, and tree branches from Picasso’s garden now formed the basis for his playful transformations. A commanding troupe of six charismatic Bathers materialized from a variety of wooden planks and found objects, including painting stretchers from his studio. Arranged in a sequence devised by the artist, it is the only multi-figured sculptural ensemble of Picasso’s career.
The bull reemerges in this phase as a wood construct:
SHEET METAL SCULPTURES, 1954 – 1964
Picasso’s final phase of making sculpture centered on sheet metal, a popular material for design objects as well as for utilitarian purposes. In 1954 he became acquainted with the products of a commercial sheet metal workshop in the town of Vallauris, where he was living. That year, and again in 1957, he created a number of heads in cut and folded paper or cardboard and had these templates fabricated as sheet metal sculptures at 1:1 scale. Picasso played with the possibilities of multiple perspectives through both the contours of the metal planes and the painted details he applied after the sculpture was assembled.
Roberta Smith continues her critical analysis of the exhibition: “Like its predecessor, this exhibition raises the question of whether Picasso was a better sculptor or painter. It’s a tough call. In each medium, he disrupted art with a track-switching masterpiece: In painting there is the vehement Demoiselles d’Avignon of 1907, on view in the fifth-floor galleries, one of the central pylons on which he and Braque erected Cubism. And he did art perhaps an even greater favor with the boxy constructed wall piece Guitar — a 1914 work that initiates modern sculpture by establishing space itself — hollowness, volume, weightlessness — as one of its primary materials.
“Picasso was more completely himself in three dimensions: a magician, a magpie genius, a comedic entertainer and a tinkerer with superb reflexes. His many gifts — versatility, voraciousness, a need for constant reinvention — are more sharply apparent in real space and tangible materials. We can’t miss his consummate grasp of tactility and form or of the potential for found objects and materials to lead double lives. Screws could be legs of a girl reading a book. A spigot could be the crest of a crane whose body and tail feathers were once the head of a shovel. A small flat-faced deity carved from a scrap of wood is reddened and rubbed until it looks like ancient terra cotta”.