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LONDON — Let us try to anticipate the story… Oh my god, surely it’s not Pablo Picasso again, that bare-chested, bronze-chested, priapic omnivore! Can it really be possible to stage yet another museum-quality exhibition by this man, one which has the capacity to delight and surprise us all over again? Have we not seen it all before? Does not his omnipresence among us mean that this time, surely, the law of diminishing returns will all but demand that he fail?
After all, talent aside, was he not a monster to almost every woman he loved and left, who deserves to be hissed off the stage? And do not our memories of him — presiding over the fan-beleaguered court of King Picasso at Mougins or any of his other favored haunts, surrounded by sycophants who invented or bent the truth in his favor — truly appall?
The title of the exhibition itself lacks promise: Picasso and Paper. Could any committee have come up with a blander and less arresting title for a show, anything less buoyed by the wings of poetry?
Yes, the show is large and ambitious, as so often before. It begins in childhood and ends in his final year, by which time he was 91 years old. It asks us to consider the importance of paper to Picasso, that indefatigable maker throughout his long working life, and, barring a few paintings on canvas, a handful of sculptures, and the hand-press that was used to produce some of his last prints, it mostly consists of hundreds of works on paper, enough to engulf all the first floor galleries of the Royal Academy.
Is it any good then? Does he deserve all this attention all over again, almost 50 years after his death? Does it refresh and extend our understanding of the man’s work? Yes and yes and yes. The world-weary, jaundiced critic has been put to flight. Picasso was a man built of paper through and through.
Why was paper so important to him then? Because it gave Picasso an enormous degree of flexibility, physically and mentally. He was never a theoretician. Although he talked a lot (and especially to his friends), he wrote no treatises. Unlike, say, Klee, he had no capacity to verbalize and reflect upon the nature of his own creativity in a systematically pedagogical fashion, and then to write it down for the benefit of others. Gropius would never have invited him along to join the Bauhaus gang.
What he did instead was to work through his ideas verblessly, with his hands, and often at the speed of a magician. And it was as a consequence of all this obsessive, lifelong hand-fashioning that he discovered not only who he was, what he had been, and where he was from, but also what he might in the fullness of time become.
Otherwise, there would have been no thrill of moment-by-moment surprise. And Picasso was always seeking to surprise himself. He never let up. And paper, being small and bendable and tearable and fragile and relatively unimportant — worlds away, culturally speaking, from the heavy, studied pomposity of bronze, or the slow-drying laborsomeness of oils — was stuff that could be snatched up at whim, and then managed or mismanaged and folded and creased, and then quickly torn into creatively provocative itsy-bitsy shapes, and in fact generally messed with on the wing.
And so the show goes through all those many periods of evolution and part-return and surgings forward (from the Blue to the Rose, the Cubist to the Neoclassical and on), and demonstrates to us, in great and systematic detail, how the use of paper – and the use of so many varieties of paper — made so much of this ceaseless experimentation possible, because it was always so ready and easily to hand. Even yesterday’s newspaper could be pressed into service for a hasty, angry caricature of Franco when this diminutive Catalan in perpetual exile found himself rising to the white heat of his Republican detestation.
Paper, in short, was at one with this artist’s nature. It was the stuff of the everyday. It admitted ragged bits and pieces of daily existence into the studio. It drove out pomposity and self-conscious artiness. And, until now, the story of Picasso and his love of paper, its pervasive importance, what it really enabled him to do, and how it made it possible for him to think through his fingers, at such speed, and with such dexterity, has been little studied, little shown for what it was …
Let’s take a particular historical moment then, between 1906 and 1907, when he was moving towards the creation of what would be one of the great, jarring, defining moments in the history of the art of the 20th century. I am referring to “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” that ferocious figure group, which horrified and repulsed in just about equal measure. “This thing is like drinking gasoline,” one artist remarked.
Here, isolated around these walls, are all the drawn movements towards its final creation, all the hesitations, all the intuitive thinking, all the components, as it comes into being: the savage shapes, the quick, brute strokes, the fissurings, the flattenings, the fierce anglings that would eventuate in the painting itself. And all these drawings give it to us, bit by bit.
What we also notice, and what these cumulative sequences of drawn occasions make clear, is how often Picasso begins by getting things wrong, and then, perhaps only a day or two later, nails it, unerringly. Late in life, he goes in hot pursuit of some of the great painters who had haunted him throughout his life: Dégas, Manet, Delacroix. He ransacks them like an entire posse of marauding musketeers. He takes a subject, and then he riffs on it, through a painting of his own or a series of prints.
Take Manet’s “Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe,” for example. Picasso’s version on these walls looks undercharged, a pallid remake far too much in the guise of a fairly generic Picasso. Yet when he makes a sequence of prints on the very same subject, the whole thing comes alive. He finds what he has been looking for! He interprets to reinvent. He makes Manet vitally anew. He sees Manet through his own eyes.
Perhaps he also swallows him whole.
Picasso and Paper continues at Royal Academy of Arts (Burlington House, Piccadilly, London) through April 13.