Oct 8: Critics have been raving about the exhibition of Picasso’s Sculpture that opened recently at MOMA, and with good reason. It is remarkable. Many of the 140 sculptures Picasso made between 1902 and 1964 are on loan from museums and private collections in this country and abroad. Many have not been seen here in the US before.
Because he never trained as a sculptor, Picasso could express himself with no regard for tradition. The late critic Robert Hughes once wrote that Picasso was “the most succinctly inventive sculptor of the 20th century.” The artist seems to have been especially fond of his sculptures. He sold almost none in his lifetime, but kept them at home almost as if they were pets. Only after his death were they dispersed, many becoming part of the founding collection of the Muse?e National Picasso–Paris.
Picasso’s commitment to sculpture, however, was sporadic. After making a number of pieces in one mode, he would return to painting to earn money. Months or sometimes years later he would begin sculpting again by which time his style as well as his materials and techniques had changed.
"Flowers in a Vase" 1951-53
Each galley in the exhibition represents a different chapter of Picasso’s sculptural career. John Richardson, author of the definitive biography of the artist and who knew him well, wrote that he had seen at first hand “how the arrival of a new mistress triggered a new style.”
If the works in each period are so distinct they might have been made by different artists, within each period Picasso explored different media and styles. However, the one constant in every period is the number of women who were his subjects.
Picasso used an almost endless variety of materials including wood, metals, plaster, clay, and glass often in combination. He was especially attracted to found objects. He turned cake molds, spades, screws, and a watering into birds and flowers. He transformed the seat and handlebars of a bicycle into the horns and face of a bull. Wicker baskets became the belly of a goat. His son’s toy car was transformed into the face of a baboon.
"The Bathers" 1956
In 1956 he created an extraordinary group of six “bathers” from wooden planks, odd bits and pieces of wood and old picture frames from his studio. Arranged as Picasso intended on what seems to be a pebbly beach, these totemic figures would be right at home in the Met’s Rockefeller Wing. On loan from the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, it is the only multi-figured sculptural ensemble Picasso ever made.
There is not the space to describe more than a few of the highlights of this extraordinary exhibition. The second gallery devoted to his cubist pieces made between 1912 and 1915 features some of his Picasso’s most groundbreaking works including two guitars. The first, made in 1912 is fashioned from paper, thread, string, twine, and coated wire. The second is similar but made two years later from sheet metal and wire.
"Head of a Woman" 1931
Here too are the artist’s six bronze absinthe glasses from 1914. When they came out of the foundry they were identical. After Picasso painted them - some with polka dots, some in solid colors -- they each seem quite dissimilar. This is the first time that all six of the glasses have been shown together since they were taken from his studio during the second world war and sold at auction.
Twelve years elapsed before Picasso returned to sculpture in 1927 when he made several constructions from wire rods welded together into complex shapes that Picasso’s dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, called “drawing in space.” Some figures from that time presage the attenuated figures Giacometti would soon make. There is also the delightful “Woman in the Garden” made of oddly shaped bits and pieces of metal joined together by rods all painted white.
In the early thirties Picasso was making slender wood figures whittled from old pieces of painting stretchers as well as fallen tree branches. His main material, however, was white plaster, which he fashioned into huge figures including a number of massive female heads some with phallic features.
Ceramics from Vallauris c. 1948
Picasso spent most of the war in German occupied Paris, where bonze was reserved for the military. Picasso managed to smuggle a few pieces to a foundry by night including a large cat twitching its tail. Most remarkable are the three small cutouts he made from torn or burnt scraps of paper – deceptively simple shapes that convey exactly the character of their subjects - a dog’s face, a goat and a death’s head.
"Head of a Dog" 1943 (torn & burnt napkin)
After the war Picasso went back to the south of France where he turned to ceramics creating animals including a magnificent bull, birds, and of course women. In 1946 Picasso made what are among my favorite works in the exhibition. In the gallery devoted to Vallauris, a vitrine contains six pebbles and ceramic shards Picasso found on the beach and engraved with faces. Try not to overlook them. These tiny faces are delightful.