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‘Picasso and the Paris Avant-Garde’ at the Art Museum (1st review)BY: Andrew Mangravite 02.19.2010
Picasso and his friends had one hell of an idea: to explode the image in analytic manner. But eventually, this show reveals, they had to pick up the pieces.
“Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris.” Through May 2, 2010 at Philadelphia Museum of Art, Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26th St. (215) 763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org.
The revolt against the revoltANDREW MANGRAVITE
“Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris” is an exhibit of 214 works— oils, watercolors, drawings, collages, photographs, sculpture and illustrated books— all drawn from the Art Museum’s own extensive holdings. The title gives us the show’s raison-d’être: Picasso was a seminal figure in the evolution of modern art, but he didn’t do it alone.
To me, this show is really about The Image and where it stands in relation to visual art. Is it incontrovertible, or is it there to be manipulated as the artist requires?
The classic notion was that Art exists to capture the image as faithfully as possible— within limits. These last two words are important because, clearly, artists are human beings, not cameras. So an image will be distorted only accidentally or willfully, either because the artist lacks the skill to do better, or because the artist infuses the work with his own personality.
Influences from Asian art (stylization of form) and primitive art (vigor of execution, plus a certain disregard for the niceties of technique) had made themselves felt in European art circles before Picasso and his colleagues arrived. To a certain extent, those ideas have always been there. After you make your obligatory genuflection before Picasso’s 1906 painting, Self-Portrait with Palette, take a trip up to the second-floor “European Art before 1500” section and check out the mini-exhibit, “Hans Memling’s Virgin Nursing the Christ Child and the Early Netherlandish Tondo.” There you’ll see The Virgin, a late-15th-Century oil on panel by Memling—and you will discover the same sort of stylization of facial features being used.
Picasso and his like-minded colleagues set about to explode the image in an analytical manner. (I suppose they could claim that Cézanne had set the precedent, although his analysis of what he saw was less invasive and involved more a visual simplification of The Image rather than a breakdown of it.) This was the big statement behind Cubism: that you could take the world apart the way a watchmaker might disassemble a watch and see how all the little wheels within wheels turn.
It was a revolutionary idea, and Picasso’s crowd pursued it with great vigor. And like all great revolutionary ideas, it soon burned itself out and was succeeded by laxness and reaction. After a point, the initial upheavals of Cubism subsided into gentle tremors.
If you look at, say, the 1907 watercolor study for Picasso’s famed Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, then travel ahead a bit to Andre Lhote’s 1921 oil, Head of a Woman, you’ll see this retreat for yourself. On one hand, we have fragmentation of the image; on the other, stylization of it.
This is an important distinction. When you fragment the image, it is taken out of its original context and rendered moot. When you stylize it, it remains recognizable for what it is, but is highlighted in a new way. Thus Lhote’s painting is clearly the head of a woman, but the ways in which the artist accentuates the plains of her face and simplifies his colors cause us to see the woman in a new way. It is not a photographic likeness of her.
Homer and Hopper, repackaged
Charles Sheeler’s 1922 oil, Pertaining to Yachts and Yachting, is a small masterpiece of balance. The image is there for all to see, as plain as any work by Homer or Hopper, yet it’s re-packaged in a new, more exciting idiom. It fairly screams modernity and speed at the viewer.
Understandably, the more extreme visions of chaos unbound would breed a reaction by those who prefer order. Interestingly, Jean Cocteau— usually considered something of a modern himself— was one of the first to call for a restoration of classical verities in the arts. He wanted women that looked like women and guitars that looked like guitars. He got them for a while.
The section of the show titled “Return to Order” can almost be viewed as a straw man. “What?” the exhibit seems to ask rhetorically— “After the glories of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, do you want to return to this?”
Back to the Second Empire
Truthfully, the show’s largest work— Joaquin Valverde Lasarte’s The Hunters— wouldn’t have seemed out of place in one of Napoleon III’s salons, except that the judges would have found the simplified modeling intolerably clumsy. Those old Second Empire boys appreciated their minutely rendered details— and the more photographic, the better. But clearly this painting’s heart is not in the primitivist world of Les Demoiselles.
But Lasarte’s work isn’t the whole story. Jean Souverbe’s 1926 oil, Composition, is a lovely piece of work— ever so faintly surrealistic and with mythological overtones. Much the same could be said of Marie Laurencin’s 1925 oil, Nymph and Hind.
In fact, many of the works in this section hearken back to myth and a longing for the imagined purity of Ancient Greece and Rome, which was a sort of balm to war-weary hearts. We shouldn’t judge this post-World War I desire for classical restraint too harshly. In music it lured Stravinsky and Hindemith from their youthful paths— and perhaps more (not less) classical restraint would have stopped the Austrian primitive Hitler in his tracks.
Even Picasso’s colleague Georges Braque apparently heeded the call: His Nude Reclining, while no Rubens, is not without interest. It certainly presents a unified image in an immediately apprehensible manner.
The final stages of the exhibit explore the influence of Surrealism. Some people, in their haste to enshrine Picasso as the father of Cubism, never realized that the Surrealists claimed him as one of their own, and Picasso didn’t shun their attentions. His poetry and his plays are clearly surrealistic in their orientation, and works like the set of etchings called Dream and Lie of Franco, which read almost like a modern graphic novel, demonstrate how much Picasso is at home pitching his tent in the Surrealists’ camp.♦
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