On ViewMuseo Picasso Málaga
Picasso Sculptor. Matter and Body
May 8–September 9, 2023
When we encounter any work of art by Picasso, be it a painting, a drawing, a print, a ceramic, or a sculpture—let alone an exhibition of his works that is medium specific or dedicated to a particular theme, or a phase of his evolution—we viscerally feel an ecstatic joy in the presence of his most exceptional attribute: his ability to think and feel and fearlessly invent. Equally impressive is his ability to do so with the same kind of freedom and unhesitating inventiveness in all mediums, to embody thought in feeling in the material textures from which the works are made, either in two or three-dimensions. With one possible exception of the years between 1907 and 1914, when he and Georges Braque aspired to create an impersonal Cubist language, Picasso’s work has always demonstrated a remarkable intellectual power and emotional depth, which he was able to embed in every subject of his fascination, and with astonishingly personal imagery. The agility with which he moves from subject to subject, and from modes that range from clarity to ambiguity, from anxiety and darkness to affirmation and a liberating sense of lightness is a profound example of our human freedom of action.
This first major exhibition on Picasso’s sculpture in Spain, exquisitely curated by the legendary Carmen Giménez (who has spent a lifetime contemplating Picasso’s work, especially the evolution of modern sculpture after Cubism), focuses on his images of the human body, through a selection of sixty-two sculptures created between 1909 and 1964. Giménez has drawn upon her deep understanding and wide knowledge of Picasso’s work to thoughtfully organize and caringly illuminate the full complexities of the artist’s work, instead of falling back on whatever interpretation may appeal to the tyranny of the public’s interest, which too often is dictated by whichever way the current political and social climate is leaning, whether to the left or to the right of the pendulum. Here Giménez has generously, and subtly, orchestrated the way the spaces between the works are activated throughout the two installations on the two upper floors of the museum. For example, as one enters the first large room of the exhibition, the first two works one sees—Head (1928) on the left, and Head of a Women (Fernande) (1909) on the right—are installed as a welcoming gesture, as well as establishing a plastic dialogue between flatness and sculptural form. The same kind of contrast is applied in Head of a Man (1930) and Head of a Woman (Marie-Thérèse) (1931). At the same time, however, for the sake of fluidity of forms and images in respect to material, space, and rhythm, certain works, including two different versions of Head of a Woman (1937), and Bust of a Woman (1937) were displayed among smaller works, such as fragments of three versions of Eye (1931–32).
In her response to this given space, Giménez has arranged two works in proximity that represent Picasso’s manipulations of linear networks: Figure: Project for a Monument to Guillaume Apollinaire (1928) and Woman in the Garden (ca. 1930–32) at one end, while placing Woman with Vase (1933) and Head of a Warrior (1933), composed of compressed and disruptive forms at the other end. Here, one observes not just a continuity between different styles and modes of invention, but also recognizes the unfolding of various processes in which varieties of intentions are materialized gradually over time. Most importantly, one senses as a result the rightness that Picasso was able to specifically engender in each of the work’s individual qualities. Yet, while looking at this selection of works in totality, one wonders still if it is possible to discern an underlying unity in Picasso’s art, despite his famously warning against us doing so in the following statement:
Those who seek to explain a picture most often go astray. How can a spectator live a picture as I have lived it? How can one penetrate into my dreams, my instincts, my desires, my thoughts, which have taken so long to work themselves out and to come forth? And especially, how can one grasp what I have put into the work, perhaps in spite of my will?
As one turns to the smaller room, with the work Woman with Orange or Woman with Apple (1934) shown at the beginning, and Pregnant Woman (1950) at the end, the sense of mystery persists. We are made especially aware of this because of Gimenez’s curatorial punctuation of the space, which accentuates Picasso’s thinking and feeling in terms of form and material as a necessary element of pictorial simultaneity in how the human body is constructed. Again, without one’s point of arrival either as an enigmatic response to the image or as a formal reaction to the making of the image, one is again taken by the aura of two conditions: the playful terror in the former, and the melancholy sadness in the latter.
Leading down to the floor below—the second part of the exhibition—the various pictorial explorations of the body are intensified by contrast. At one end, a group of Picasso’s most iconic works from his 1956 series “The Bathers”—comprised of six figures: Woman Diver, Man with Folded Hands, Fountain Man, Child, Woman with Outstretched Arms, and Young Man—adroitly filled the corner space. At the other end, Woman with Outstretched Arms (1961) is installed with ample space surrounding her. In between them, other examples of Picasso’s material enterprise of forms seen in two-dimensions are displayed, in a cogent yet inconspicuous continuum, be it via the acts of cutting and folding, welding, or painting on sheet metal. These various material qualities are seen in a number of works, ranging from the subtle manipulation of one same configuration in Woman with Child (1961) and Woman with Tray and Bowl (1961), or say Head of a Woman (Jacqueline) (1962), Head of a Woman (1962), and Maquette for Richard J. Dailey Center Sculpture (1964), as opposed to Man Running (1960) and Child (1960), which were cast in bronze (after being modeled in clay on simple sticks of wood for armatures). This concurrence between thinking and feeling with regard to flatness and sculptural form reminds us of Picasso’s famous multiplicity of pictorial vocabularies, as in the way that on the same day in the summer of 1921 he painted a synthetic Cubist picture like Three Musicians in the morning, and in the afternoon made a neoclassical picture such as Three Women at the Spring.
As Giménez points out in her insightful essay, “The radical breaks with tradition that Picasso continually effected throughout his career were not achieved only in the field of painting, for he was equally revolutionary in the realm of sculpture.” And part of what is so compelling about this exhibition is not only that it focuses solely on Picasso’s work as a sculptor, but the way in which it reaffirms how the human body, and the bodies of other living organisms, were essentially what prevented Picasso from becoming a totally abstract artist, even though the invention of Cubism had given birth to abstraction. One of the many reasons Picasso’s work matters still to this day is his exceptional ability to mediate the fullest exploration of self-inventions of the body and matter as a perpetual consonance/dissonance synthesis of image-forms in every conceivable conjecture, all in the service of expressing the fullest human emotions without any kind of reductiveness. Picasso’s explorations of the body, both body schema ( the complex network of our sensory-motor functions that enable some measure of control over the body parts in space, without our being consciously aware of them), and body image (a conscious representation of ways our bodies appear) have always been matched with his tremendous power of vision, of invention in all types of forms, and transformation in all kinds of materials, through the remarkable manipulation of his hands. In Picasso’s work it is made strikingly and repeatedly apparent how important the body is to what lies between mythology, history, and everything else in human affairs. Picasso has shown us that we can gain strength from the process of self-transformation through a restless embrace of everything to do with human experience—from the power of our mind to our body, from the power of our eye to our hand. This exhibition, as part of the international commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the artist, Picasso Celebration 1973–2023, could not have been more prescient and timely in invoking freedom against oppression.
As I was on the plane returning to New York City after seeing this exhibition, I was reminded of the way that the last passage of Charles Baudelaire’s prose poem “At One O’Clock In the Morning” expresses so much that I so deeply admire about Picasso’s art:
Souls of those I have loved, souls of those I have sung, strengthen me, support me, rid me of lies and the corrupting vapours of the world; and you, O Lord God, grant me the grace to produce a few good verses which shall prove to me that I am not the lowest of men, that I am not inferior to those whom I despise.