Walking through the Museum of Modern Art’s modern galleries the other day, I happened upon a small painting that’s about as powerful a work as any I’ve ever seen in the museum, and maybe my favorite object in the collection. Surprisingly, this mini work is actually a Picasso, and even at 6 1/4 by 4 3/8 inches is a tour de force of brushstroke, color and composition. Created in 1921 during Picasso’s classical period, this bathing woman is monumental even in the smallest of frames.
From a ways off, no visitor would really expect anything big out of “Nude Seated on a Rock”, a tiny object mounted on a side wall in a gallery full of striking Picasso canvases. See the photo of the piece in situ at top. Nothing much, right? But get a little closer and an entire world becomes visible, a sky rendered in pale blues and white, mottled and hazy like a humid beach on the Mediterranean coast, the horizon a split between the darkness of the water and the light of the sky. Picasso’s model sits on a nondescript rock outcropping against the barest hint of ground, with the land foreground crashing against the blue background. The muted glow of the painting’s light might be from an evening sunset, or maybe an early morning sunrise. It’s a time and place that can’t be pinned down, and this anonymity gives rise to the painting as an archetype, a universality that shares a timelessness with Cezanne’s bathers.
The model’s body flows into her rocky perch, but remains silhouetted against the sky, a delicate balance of warm flesh tones against cool greys, blues and yellows. There’s a placid look on her face, the stoicism of the classical nude mixed with a toned-down version of Picasso’s ever-present, bristling eroticism, pursed lips, drugged eyes gazing out and up. The nude’s posture is relaxed, but not so satedly open as the artist’s later portraits of his young lover Marie-Thérèse. Her proportions are monumental, statuesque and iconic without losing the softness of skin and warmth of body that goes by the wayside in Picasso’s famed “Three Women at the Spring” (1921), painted the same summer as the “Nude Seated on a Rock” and also on view at MoMA.
This work becomes more astonishing the closer you get to it. Go up and take a closer look, even if the guard yells at you. Stick your nose in it. That’s the only way to see Picasso’s incredibly intricate brushwork, the network of crosshatching and striated strokes that comes together to form the sky, the ocean, the rock and the nude’s body. Each stroke seems to be of a different shade of flesh, the pinks of her cheeks to the oranges on her arms and the pale whites of her thigh and upper body, Whistler’s “Symphony in Flesh Color and Pink” without the Victorian decorum. It’s this hatching that unites the surface of the painting, turning a figurative image into something also abstract and diffuse, a haze of color.
I love when I can walk through MoMA and be stopped dead in my tracks by something like this. It’s a pleasant surprise to see something you’d never expect — in his case, a miniature Picasso that has more power than a lot of his larger canvases. Showcases like this should give curators the chance to surprise us with the gems of a permanent collection, those little objects that too rarely see the light of day. With more switch-outs and switch-ups, showing us new sides of old artists, MoMA curators could make the museum as responsive and as fresh as their collection deserves. More surprises could make visitors rethink their experience of the museum just as I was forced to rethink Picasso’s work.
The Museum of Modern Art is located at 11 West 53rd Street in New York City.