Friday, March 26, 2010

Picasso: Themes and Variations

What a stunning exhibition from MoMA, an historical look at Pablo Picasso's printmaking throughout his career (from the early Blue Period stuff through the 1960s and onward). And this isn't even the entire MoMA trove from the Prints and Illustrated Books Dept, just the veritable cream off the top of the works by a superlatively influential modern artist. I will convey three clear points, that 1) nearly all Picasso's prints are beautiful, 2) you'll see his methodology in abstraction in ranges of lithographs and etchings as he works one highly representational image (like a bull) into something wildly abstract, and 3) he experimented a lot in his printmaking, which lends some rather wicked results.
The show is not explicitly chronological, though you'll find the earliest works — like the sparsely, though precisely, rendered "Head of a Woman" (1905) drypoint at the entrance. Another wild one on the adjacent wall is "The Frugal Repast" (1904), a very Blue Period etching of a farming-type couple at a table, his arm slung 'round her shoulder as she cradles her chin in her hand in trailing thought. According to the placard, which I have to believe, this precise piece was Picasso's first foray into printmaking, and it led his 'Saltimbanques' series. The harlequins are in greater, though terribly surreal, form in the nearby "Salomé" (1905), a loose, dreamy drypoint of a few seated characters (incl. one guy holding a severed head on a platter?) and a gymnast-type girl, her leg extended in either a warm-up stretch or a kick. The adjacent wall features some of Picasso's 'Minotaurs', explaining that the Minotaur was like a stand-in for him in the '30s (though considering the overall proliferation of bulls throughout it's not hard to see Picasso injecting himself into many of these works). And here we go with a side-by-side shocker: "Blind Minotaur" from 1934, shown here as a lovely etching and then a ridiculously cool combo aquatint/engraving/drypoint. The night sky comes alive on the latter, the paper seems to glow, practically, w/ an unearthly luminescence. And thanks to the shadows off the aquatint, the latter feels 3D, nearly like a relief carving. It's magical. Though it loses out to my personal favorite "Minotauromachy" (1935, an engraving and etching) next door. This largish work bears the fruit of the soon-to-arrive "Guernica", Picasso's renowned painting of the bombing of the town during the Spanish Civil War. Though "Minotauromachy" has a much more realist composition, the ingredients are obvious: the light-bearer, the cringing horse, the swooning maiden, the onlookers, and of course the brutish bull, here as a bare-chested Minotaur. It's a stunner, tamed perhaps by the inclusion of "Female Bullfighter" (1934, etching on vellum) and "Large Bullfight" (1934, etching). The latter is an incredible achievement, Picasso's usage of etching in automatic drawing (a Surrealist theme), and I don't know how one can 'automatically etch' but he did it, revealing this fractured angles, festival-like vibe that nearly obscures the violent action. The former is less cluttered but retains a Marc Chagall-like resonance, w/ the maiden and bull twisted back on one another, she bearing the sword and 'he' making like he's going to kiss her whilst feeling the steel simultaneously. And one more thing on bulls: the "Bull" lithographs fro 1945-6, shown here in five stages as, over a winter-time, Picasso took an almost Audobon-styled bull on the plain and, w/ reductive and increasingly draftsmanlike strokes, converted it into a polygonal figure — though still entirely bull-like. It's just no one else could do that like him.
Enough on bulls. Women figure into many of Picasso's prints, wives, lovers and others. The iconic Dora Maar is here as "Weeping Woman" (a combo etching/drypoint/aquatint from 1937) that you'll surely recognize from the famous painting. This is also in direct dialogue w/ "Guernica"; they were both completed around the same time. His "Two Nude Women" variations, a set of lithographs from 1946 set in a vitrine, are worth some lingering, as he pulled back the layers over several 'takes' to convert a seductive duo, one seated, the other in repose, totally could have come from his Rose Period, into those amorphic blobs and shapes that, somehow, still very much look like two gorgeous women. But it's not the same as taking some filter in Photoshop and abstracting the hell out of an image to attempt to achieve such results. Picasso was able to do this, like a mathematical formula in his head, to SEE these abstractions and work them out to still make sense to the viewer, while remaining something no one has ever seen before. I quite dug his Rene Matisse-like linework on "Françoise with a Bow in her Hair" (a 1946 lithograph), of Françoise Gilot, Picasso's lover and muse from the mid-40s to mid-50s (following Dora Maar). She is incredibly captivating w/o superfluous lines. The later set of Jacqueline Roque linocuts (Picasso's 2nd wife, following Gilot — so I guess there IS a chronology to all this!) range from ghostly to high-contrast (like Jean Dubuffet's more figurative stuff), all black on tan.
I don't know what linocut means, precisely, but Picasso added like 12 colors to the hallucinogenic "Luncheon on the Grass (After Manet)", from 1962, which is characteristically Picasso-trippy (balloon-like maidens on the lawn) in a Paul Gauguin Tahitian backdrop, done up in chartreuse, red-orange, violet and kelly green. The essence of Manet is there but Picasso's version looks like the gathering is having WAY more fun. Also: his three lithographs on "David and Bathsheba (After Lucas Cranach the Elder)" (1947) begins w/ a fairly close take to the original, though done in Picasso's heavier, constrasty way (like how R. Crumb illustrates the Book of Genesis, sort of ), but then he inverts everything so that the next version is all-black w/ incised white lines and white-shadowed figures (an overall magical sensation) and the third even further, white wire-frame figures on black, a polygonal world. The "Nocturnal Dance With Owl" linocuts from '59 on the adjacent wall have him playing with this printmaking technique, to ecstatic results. The subject matter is fairly to-the-point, a night-scape of people getting down at a party, dancing around and playing instruments. Even the goat is getting down. And there's the lone owl in the tree, looking stoic or bemused. Picasso began w/ a brown on black linocut and then took it elsewhere, revisiting the block and painting over the ink and rinsing the print in his shower (IN HIS SHOWER) to form this mottled, negative-space print on black, that lends incidental shadows to the figures. Then he went and added watercolor to another take, creating a pinkish tone to the entire thing.
I'm all about this exhibition. The endless array of experimentation and opportunities provided by printmaking techniques totally led to some of Picasso's most renowned paintings, and we get a great glimpse into his process. That said, he elevated printmaking as a whole, to where any of these works could stand confidently on their own and be called nothing but fine art.