Although Pablo Picasso achieved fame as one of the inventors of Cubism and as the creator of paintings that shocked the public, a show at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art reveals another side of the artist.
“Picasso: Select Prints and Ceramics,” an intimate exhibition of mostly black-and-white works completed between 1931 and 1968, shows him as an interpreter of literary works; as a collaborator, working with the esteemed Madoura Pottery and publishers Ambroise Vollard and Au Vent d’Arles; and as a lifelong student of the history of art.
Picasso was comfortable with many mediums and disciplines. In addition to painting, sculpture, drawing and printmaking, he designed stage sets, costumes, jewelry and ceramics.
In the 1940s, looking for a peaceful alternative to Paris, he bought a home in the French Riviera town of Vallauris. There, he became acquainted with the Madoura Pottery, and in its relaxed atmosphere, he produced some of his most fanciful work.
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Unlike a production potter, who makes multiple works with his or her own hand, Picasso designed these pieces, and Madoura produced them in small editions of 50-500, like limited-edition fine prints. Madoura then distributed them through high-end galleries.
The ceramic plates “Bird on a branch,” “Bird under the sun” and “Bull under the tree” are little confections, simple and lighthearted. In “Bird under the sun,” the sun that beats down on the vulture-like bird is cheerful, almost childlike. “Bull under the tree,” unlike Picasso’s bulls in the ring, which are noble adversaries, is an animal at peace, alone in a meadow.
In the incised ceramic “Le dejeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass),” Picasso takes Edouard Manet’s notorious painting of two women, one nude and one scantily clad, picnicking with clothed male companions and renders it with his characteristic lines, forms and spatial manipulations.
Although reinterpreting the works of other artists is a longstanding tradition, there is something particularly nervy about this one. It is simultaneously an homage and an act of audacity.
In dramatic contrast to the ceramics are prints that deal with conflict and power struggles, whether between man and woman or man and bull.
In 1931, Picasso produced a series of etchings to illustrate Honoré de Balzac’s “The Unknown Masterpiece” for the publisher Vollard. In this tragic story, a beautiful model inspires a misunderstood artist to finally complete a painting of Mary of Egypt that has frustrated him for years. But the painting is poorly received by his colleagues, and the artist, awash in feelings of failure, burns all of the paintings in his studio and dies in the fire.
In these delicate etchings, Picasso depicts the complex relationship between the artist and the model, as well as the artist’s thwarted longings.
“Toros” is a suite of 15 lithographs published in 1960 with the poem “Toro” by Pablo Neruda. Here, Picasso returns to one of his most beloved subjects, the bullfight.
The lithographs are a procession of contrasts – youth and decrepitude, life and death, pageantry and violence. They progress from courtly scenes of bullfighters and ladies before the fight to the fight itself, and finally to the raucous celebration afterward.
Particularly stunning is “Toros: Passing of the Cape,” with its cinematic space and the silhouette-like figure of the bull.
While the ceramics are charming, the prints seethe with the tension that drove Picasso in almost everything he did. This exhibition may be visually subdued, but it is filled with passion.