Arts » Visual Art

Fragments of Truth

Picasso works out on canvas the answers to life's big questions.

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"The Sculptor," created by Picasso in 1931.
  • "The Sculptor," created by Picasso in 1931.

If you don't already adore that cultural icon known as Picasso, the Cleveland Museum of Art exhibition Picasso: The Artist's Studio may do little to change your mind. All of his familiar motifs are here: the cubed and squared still lifes and landscapes, the women with bodies sprawled and disassembled, the flayed red bull's head, the black squiggles and brown swoops seemingly thrown at the canvas by a five-year-old.

The organizers of this traveling exhibit chose works to show the role Picasso's studio played in his art. Picasso made no distinction between work and the rest of his life, so a lot of his life took place in his studio.

The selected works, however, don't do as good a job of putting you in his studio as do the photographs by David Douglas Duncan in the complementary exhibition down the hall. There we see a sweaty Picasso running around in his boxer shorts, reaching through a clutter of canvases to finish another moneymaker.

Still, it would be a mistake to dismiss The Artist's Studio. That's because it's less about studios than the developing consciousness of a man who obsessed about what art could be. This is a man who sat in cafés with friends such as composer Erik Satie and poet Guillaume Apollinaire, drinking wine and debating the nature of reality. Part of the counterculture, they thrilled to new theories about time, space, and dimension, and how those forces kept everything from happening at once.

The exhibit steps through some of Picasso's developing answers to questions of relativity as applied to art. An 1894 charcoal-and-pencil rendering of a plaster arm shows he'd mastered classical forms. It's not too special, just the work of a clever 13-year-old boy. But in La Vie, painted nine years later, his intellectual progression is apparent. The three main allegorical figures in blue (it's Picasso's Blue Period, of course) look like young debaters pondering the meaning of life. He had begun painting what was on his mind.

One thing on his mind was his growing obsession with masks and primitive statues. A 1906 self-portrait reflects this, emphasizing as it does the artist's confident stance and intensely staring almond eyes. The eyes were probably inspired by an exhibit at the Louvre of primitive Osuna sculptures from his native Spain. These pieces, and later some African masks Picasso stumbled across, showed distorted features -- eyes, nose, mouth -- as parts loosely fastened to the whole. The self-portrait signaled a shift from relatively realistic depiction to abstraction and simplification.

By 1931, he had painted "The Sculptor," an outlined, color-blocked figure of a man resting his hand on his face while looking at the pedestaled bust of a varicolored woman who gazes serenely back. The man appears to be aroused (though it's hard to tell, the way Picasso scatters breasts, penises, and buttocks about in his paintings). As was typical, Picasso here started with a realistic sketch, which he systematically painted over, removing more and more "reality" in favor of darkening lines and separating fragments.

Much more fun, and more of the same, "The Studio" (1934) shows a grape-round model draped over a couch while a tiny artist who looks like a palette paints her. The model, with her fruit-like breasts and belly, exudes a post-lust sensuality as she sprawls, head back, with her hair dragging on the floor.

The five-foot-three Picasso easily attracted women to use as muse, mother, and lover. He saw himself as the Minotaur: half-man, half-bull, torn between savage passion and rational mind. This beast appears to have haunted Picasso since his childhood in Andalusia, when his father took him to bullfights. In the still lifes he painted in 1938, he places the Minotaur with symbols of art: a candle, a palette, a manuscript. In these, the bull is a severed head, but in other works, he runs rampant -- a creature both aggressor and victim (after all, in the end, the bull usually ends up in pieces).

Other significant works displayed include a portrait of Jacqueline (one of his wives), looking like an ultra-abstract Mona Lisa. (Interestingly, when the "Mona Lisa" was stolen from the Louvre in 1911, Picasso was hauled in for questioning. He didn't swipe it.) The most poignant work in the show must be "Painter and Infant" (1969). Picasso, nearly 80, painted a baby rising from the lap of an aging artist. The infant looks as if he's about to take wing, but the artist reclines, firmly balanced on the earth, propped up by his palette. They each hold part of a broken paint brush: the old man, the shaft; the child, the brush.

The exhibit also evinces Picasso's interest in reduction. He once remarked, "A dot for the breast, a spot for the painter, five colored spots for a foot, spots of rose and green, that suffices, doesn't it? What can I add to that? Everything is said." Maybe so. Here we see one artist's questions about intellect, emotion, and reality. The answers he gets fracture and reassemble his world. They are instructive and worth a walk through the show.

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