An innovative exhibition charts the path by which Picasso transformed the age-old relationship between artist and model.
The title of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s exhibition “Picasso: The Artist and His Models” (November 5–February 17), is derived from the artist’s 1926 painting Artist and His Model, which visualizes the complex relationship between the two. With this in mind, the title of the show at the Buffalo, N.Y.-based museum becomes a guiding light when approaching the work of Pablo Picasso. The towering giant of modern art did not use models in the traditional sense but instead based his work on subjects from his own life: friends, lovers, meaningful objects, literature, music. When we consider this in the context of art history and the results it yielded in modern art, particularly Picasso’s work, the artist takes on a new role in the art-making process in relation to his models. The historically direct relationship between artist and “model” becomes abstracted in modern art—the relationship itself now the subject of the work. In Picasso’s works this relationship is explored through art-making, the work being the site of the interaction. In the artist’s own words, “painting is a form of magic designed as a mediator between this strange, hostile world and us,” and art becomes “a way of seizing power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires.”
The Albright-Knox presents 25 works including paintings, sculptures and works on paper pulled largely from its own impressive collection, with a small but important selection of loans. The goal of the show is to explore the work of Picasso while also moving the conversation and timeline toward the emergence of pure abstraction in visual art. One of exhibition’s curators, Holly E. Hughes, says, “The idea was a series of exhibitions that allowed us to create a new context for our collection, and we identified artists whose careers traversed a period of time that was formative in the development of modern art.” The gallery’s most recent show was devoted to Monet, “from the Academy to the cusp of abstraction,” in Hughes’ words, and who better to continue to tell the story of the move toward modern art than Pablo Picasso? In his work we see parallels and precedents to 20th-century philosophy and aesthetics, which position the artist as a unique visionary as well as a symbol of a larger cultural shift.
The show utilizes Picasso’s work to create a timeline for the development of modern art but also allows for digressions and connections to some of Picasso’s notable contemporaries, such as Henri Matisse, Albert Gleizes, Juan Gris, and Georges Braque (also on view in the exhibition), in order to complete the picture. One such connection viewers can make—and the exhibition’s curators hope they will—is between in Matisse’s 1939 oil on canvas La Musique and Picasso’s 1921 oil Three Musicians. Comparing the two works is at first glance deceptively simple. Picasso’s painting is built from a collection of seemingly disparate rectangles which somehow moves from abstraction to the representation of three musicians seated at a table. The representational aspect of Matisse’s work is grasped more quickly—two women seated, one of whom strums a guitar. The longer we examine La Musique, however, the more the work moves toward abstraction, the proportions of the figures giving way to pure shapes and colors. The two paintings are like trains entering the same station from different directions, both carrying with them modern art’s concern with spatial and psychological perspective.
Picasso’s work is a visual expression of emerging modernity, and, like the poetry of Gertrude Stein (one of Picasso’s friends and “models”) and the prose of James Joyce, his work shows that a new vision of the world necessitates a new way of expressing and representing it. Picasso’s life in fact parallels the birth of the modern world. Only a year after he was born, Nietzsche’s famous pronouncement “God is dead” appeared in The Gay Science (1882), Albert Einstein developed his theory of relativity between 1907 and 1915, coinciding roughly with Picasso’s Cubist period, and the horrors of industrialized warfare and the atomic bomb had their most cataclysmic effect in the middle of the artist’s life. The modern world was rapidly becoming one filled with existential dread as the privileged place of the human being became more and more abstract.
Picasso’s Cubist period is arguably modern art’s clearest reckoning with the radically shifting perspective emerging in the modern world. His 1910 oil on canvas Nude Figure embodies this new vision of reality. The visual data of the nude is deconstructed and reconstructed in service of the artist’s own geometric and psychic desires. The “model” becomes the “stuff” of personal expression. A ghost of the figure in flux moves in and out of being, the image existing at the crossroads of Picasso’s subjectivity, pure form, and physical reality. Neither totally realistic nor totally abstract, the painting is completely Picasso. There is something important at stake in Picasso’s painting, a deep psychic reckoning. Picasso’s place in his own work is paramount—the artist’s psyche is now the model.
Picasso’s own vision is inescapable when viewing his work. His 1944 oil on canvas Femme en vert (Dora) puts us in the mind of the artist like few other works. The viewer’s eye is drawn to spirals and curves, following the path of Picasso’s thoughts and concerns in an inexhaustible trip from top to bottom, left to right. The seated figure seems to stare out from the canvas like countless other portrait subjects which have come before in the history of art, and then in an instant shatters into purely geometric puzzle. This tension between representation and abstraction is key to modern art, opening the door to the psychology of images and how we view them. Questions emerge: when two horizontal ovals containing black spots are present (as they are in Femme en vert (Dora), why do we see “eyes”? Are we conditioned into a way of seeing and understanding through the art that has come before? Picasso’s work combines tradition (portraits, still lifes, nudes, etc.) and radical new perspectives in order to pose these questions, and it invites the viewer into the artist/model relationship as the third essential perspectival element.
The constant consideration of what came before in the history of art makes the artist’s radical redefining of perspective and the relation between artist and subject in a rapidly changing world possible. By acknowledging the past, Picasso could more clearly define his place in the present. Hughes remarks, “The idea is that the concept of the artist and the model is an ages-old idea; where Picasso is concerned, the models include the figure—people he was close to, certainly his lovers, his friends—but also mundane objects and art history.”
This process is most clear in Picasso’s neoclassical period during the 1920s but is reconciled with his experimentation and abstraction toward the end of his career. In the 1963 oil painting Rape of the Sabine Women there are shades of grandly historical composition, and the subject is one previously depicted by artists including Nicolas Poussin and Peter Paul Rubens—the rest, however, is Picasso. The figures are addressed with Picasso’s geometric concerns, not obliterated into abstraction but retaining just enough representational familiarity to tell a story in a space at once recognizable and abstract. When looking at the painting we are seeing the art-historical event of the Rape of the Sabine Women in Picasso’s mind.
As much as the Albright-Knox’s show hopes to use Picasso’s work as a point of demarcation on the road to visual abstraction, it is also important to consider the artist’s place in the practice of art and persona-making in service of another type of abstraction. Like the museum’s previous exhibitions, the choice of Picasso helps tell the story of a particular art historical period but also contains hints of what was to follow. Picasso created sculpture, wrote poetry and plays, and created ceramics, his staggering output estimated at nearly 50,000 works—all of which were born from the artist’s unique genius, all “Picassos.” The legacy Picasso passes down to later artists is that of the Artist, the person/idea at the center of the art, not necessarily the flesh-and-blood artist but the artist abstracted. In Picasso’s Mask, André Malraux wrote after the artist’s death, “I had never known Pablo the private person, or his feelings. I had known only Picasso.”
For this very reason, though, Picasso is uniquely suited to guide viewers through the maze of modern art—the perfect “model” for representing the mediating process between material and idea which is central to the period.
By Chris Shields