Back to Black

Picasso Black and White
Guggenheim Museum
October 5, 2012 - January 23, 2013
Claiming once that color weakened his work, being merely an addition to an already finished canvas, Picasso eliminated it from his palette during many phases of his well-documented career. If one wanted to make the case that the haunting blue period and the sugary rose one were the painterly equivalents of tinted photos, then there might be a case to be made for it being a lifelong practice with which Picasso demonstrated the supremacy of drawing above all else in his work. Clearly the Guggenheim, in this well-curated exhibition, makes a strong argument for this position, bringing nearly 150 paintings, many of which have never been seen before in New York, as well as some that have never been exhibited publicly, to its Frank Lloyd Wright temple of Modernism.

Although nominally a show of black-and-white works, the show offers a number of plays on what constituted this reduced palette for Picasso: in works where sepia tones replace strict blacks, showing the influence that photography had for the painter, and in other areas, including sculpture, a dark medium when it is patinated bronze. One encounters this immediately in "Woman with Vase" (1933), a primordial creature holding the titular vessel in an outstretched paw. In 1937 a cement version was placed outside of the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair, where "Guernica" (1937) -- the last word in Picasso’s black-and-white painting -- was first displayed. Picasso had arrived at a notational physiognomy of Marie-Thérèse Walter, which he captures in three dimensions in this work, while also alluding to the Iberian sculpture about which he was so passionate throughout his lifetime. Climbing the ramps at the museum, one encounters "Woman Ironing" (1904), a blue-hued painting, with its references to Degas's charcoal and pastel drawings, and "Head of a Man" (1906), a cubist, roughly hewn drawing of a head with gouged out, or hollowed, eyes. The violence and despair that Picasso wrings from these simple works is immense yet does not compare to the pre-surrealism of "Female Nude with a Guitar" (1909), a geometric study in chalk on canvas of his mistress, replete with two sets of tits and a smile carved into her neck (50 years before de Kooning’s Woman paintings) like a tracheotomy scar.

There are endless confectionery portraits of Olga Khokhlova, his first wife; "The Artist’s Wife" (1920), "Seated Nude" (1922–23), and "Portrait of Olga in a Fur Collar" (1923) show Picasso returning to the neo-classicism of both style and subject. But we already see his interest in this type of work waning, through the mere repetitiveness of these drawings, and are rewarded for our patience with what is the heart of this exhibition, the works of the 1930s and 1940s, primarily inspired by both Surrealism and Marie-Thérèse Walter. With its graphic, stylized, and distorted forms, "The Milliner’s Workshop" (1926 [above]) paved the road for "Guernica," with its sensual arabesques creating a hallucinatory feel for the cramped space of the shop where Walter’s mother worked. Here we see Picasso departing from the strict, angular planes of Cubism and creating a new pictorial vocabulary based on her athletic physicality; he creates a population of biomorphic female mutants, balloon-limbed and pliable, yet sturdy and resilient. "Arabesque Woman" (1931) seems to be a schematic for his future creatures, and "The Kiss" (1930), a surreal sketch of spiked-tongued lovers, is a notation for the larger version with which this exhibit concludes ("The Kiss" [1969]).

Although there is no "Guernica" here, its counterpart, "The Kitchen" (1948), similarly alludes to the horrors of the war and its effect on a frightened, hungry civilian population. Other post-"Guernica" works feature skulls, still lifes, and monstrous, snouted women with claw-like hands, alluding to both Dora Maar and his favorite Afghan dog. Hung as a companion piece to "The Kitchen" is "The Charnel House" (1944-45), which depicts the devastation of war, and possibly illustrates the Spanish people who fought for the liberation of France in World War II. At the time while Picasso was working, the public was first seeing news of the horrific concentration camps. His use of black and white mimics the look of newspaper photographs, allowing the canvas to speak of major events. The still life placed at the top of the canvas, signifying nature morte as well as a meditation on death, underscores the painting’s allegorical meaning, while also referencing "Pitcher, Candle, and Casserole" (1945). Here Picasso removes the candle from the still life -- without the candle, the light, one can read into the simple arrangement of object signs of ultimate despair and hopelessness.

It is in these works that his style is clarified and condensed, with his signature lopsided eyes and bisected heads. The rest of the show is comprised of more expressionist versions or variations on these paintings, with additional elements of Manet, Delacroix, and Matisse appropriated. Although writing about his early Cubist pictures, Gertrude Stein could have been describing any one of these works when she said, "There is infinite variety of color in these pictures, and by the vitality of painting, the grays really become color." - Bradley Rubenstein

The Guggenheim Museum is at 1071 Fifth Avenue (at 89th Street), New York, NY 10128.

domMr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.