In a MoMA retrospective, Pablo Picasso’s sculpture is still full of surprises
Celebrated Spanish artist was productive if fitful, working in natural and waste materials
In 1933, the Hungarian photographer Brassai photographed Picasso’s studio for an extensive article in a high-end art magazine. One image featured the artist’s sculpture arranged in the doorway of a former stable on the grounds of his chateau, Boisgeloup, north of Paris. The doors are flung open, but they reveal little of the interior. A few forms are seen just inside the arched portal, behind which is inky darkness.
The image can stand for a series of assumptions about Picasso's sculptural output that are questioned by an exhibition “Picasso Sculpture” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York until February 7.
The exhibition is billed as the first major survey of his sculpture in almost half a century, and includes some 140 works.
The show, which has been a highlight of New York’s autumn and winter season, has a basic argument: that far from being a side channel in the artist’s career, sculpture was fundamental to his practice; and despite the received historical sense that he didn’t circulate his sculpture, it was in fact well known, and influential, throughout the artist’s career.
So the obscure depths of the studio glimpsed in the Brassai photograph are more mythologising than reality, and photography turns out to be essential to the promotion of Picasso’s three-dimensional output. Brassai was a favourite photographer of Picasso, and he made moody black-and-white images of the master’s sculpture that become frustratingly indelible once you’ve seen them.
The curators of the show, Ann Temkin and Anne Umland, have devoted a room just to Brassai’s images, and it’s worth visiting only after a full pass through the other galleries. One needs to see the work from all angles before Brassai fixes it on paper from a single vantage point, enhancing one limited but compelling perspective.
Images of Picasso's sculpture circulated in magazines and journals, increasingly so after the second world war, when he was indisputably the world's most celebrated artist, and journalists and photographers for glossy periodicals flocked to his several homes in the south of France.
And even before he was world-famous, early sculptures, including the 1909 Woman’s Head, were cast in bronze and sold to multiple collectors, circulating widely in the international art market.
Yet, even if one assents to the exhibition’s premise – that the supposedly reclusive sculptures were never, in fact, all that reclusive – the show is full of surprises.
It was Picasso’s habit to pursue sculpture fitfully, but productively, in relatively short episodes of exploration; and when he had successfully found an idea, or a method, or practice that would for other artists be the beginning of a long cycle of productivity, he would abandon sculpture for years at a time. When he returned to the medium, it would be to pursue an entirely new direction.
So the cumulative effect of the show is toemphasise the sense of protean excess and prodigality that defines almost everything Picasso did. The effect is inevitably episodic, defined by blazing moments of creativity, which often feel disconnected from what comes before and after.
Perhaps the only defining quality is the provisional nature of much of the work, its flimsiness, and its close connection to rubbish.
Picasso was brilliant at repurposing objects he found, and collected, and anyone who knows the artist knows works such as 1942 Bull's Head, a bicycle seat and handlebars arranged to form a totemic image of the Minotaur’s head.
But a year later he made an even more disquieting and moving work, Head of a Dog, which consists merely of a paper napkin with a few burn marks and torn holes to suggest the eyes, nose and mouth of a fluffy ankle-biter. Where the bull’s head, cast in bronze, is savage and powerful, the paper napkin figure is true to its material, softer, more domestic and endearing.
These visual puns continue throughout Picasso's career, and they are particularly amusing when they reconfigure an easily recognisable object from the everyday world.
We don't allow ourselves much pleasure in Picasso's whimsy anymore – too many biographies have disabused us of any belief in his good nature – but it's impossible not to be charmed by a work from the early 1950s, Baboon and Young, which uses a child’s toy car to render the face of the primate.
Picasso’s earliest sculpture belongs to the 19th century, to the world of Rodin, or even earlier artists. The first work on view was made in 1902, when he was still living in Barcelona. It is a small, closed-up figure of a woman in a dress or robe, sculpted in unfired clay.
For a few years he worked in this mode, creating objects that are heavy, impenetrable, without the open views and interior exposure that became characteristic of his later work, and with a tangible sense of the hand in contact with malleable, earthy materials.
His 1907 visit to an ethnographic museum, a transformative encounter with the art of Africa and Oceania, including masks, began to liberate him from whatever sense of the past was lingering in those early, often leaden works: “The masks weren't like other kinds of sculpture,” he remembered. “Not at all. They were magical things.”
“Primitive” art became fundamental not just to his visual language, but to the way he conceived of sculpture, which he often kept close by him, living among his work as if it, too, had magical power. In some fuzzy-headed way he probably believed this, as his success fueled his megalomania and as his ego flirted with dreams of the ultimate power of generation.
The recurrence of waste materials in his work, scraps of old wood, cardboard and functional metal objects such as the gas burner incorporated into the 1945 The Venus of Gas, only reinforce the animating power of the artist, in contrast to the inert detritus of his materials.
As one approaches the end of the exhibit, a large part of one room is given over to a collection of figures, made of wood, known as The Bathers made in 1956. They stand on the ground like human beings, some of them with clearly rendered if grotesque heads (freakishly tiny or reduced to cartoon gestures). Others have arms, or defined legs and feet.
But the cumulative sense left by their gathering is a group of dead objects, shells disembodied of life. They seem at once flatly two-dimensional and hollow, and they carry a powerful sense of the uncanny. These are the puppets sans puppet master, mute and forever alien.
Spending a long time with Picasso alone, without other artists present, often leaves the false impression that if you know him, you know the 20th century. His work is sufficient, and encompassing, and it stifles other voices.
But that's an illusion. After spending time with the monumental accomplishment of Picasso, head to other galleries.
Take in Umberto Boccioni's 1913 striding figure, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, or anything by Constantin Brancusi. Search out Giacometti and Calder and Matisse.
There were other sculptors, and many other ways of making work meaningful than the ones Picasso mastered.
Picasso developed his own language of sculptural forms, his own, hermetic hybrids of human and biomorphic forms. He worked to dissolve the lines between sculpture and painting, and between art and craft, making and assembling.
But there is an aridity to his work, too, even at its most brilliant. To understand his accomplishment, and legacy, you must also understand his limitations.