Chloë Ashby explores the new exhibition Picasso and Paper, on show at the Royal Academy until 13th April.
In 1890, when he was eight or nine, Picasso took a pair of scissors and made two paper cut-outs: a dove and a stocky dog. A few years later, after enrolling at the School of Fine Arts in La Corua, he created an academic study of a classical cast in charcoal and chalk. These two works the first of almost 350 on display at the Royal Academy in London demonstrate the talent that the artist showed even when he was a child.
It's hard to keep track of the ways in which Picasso's 80-year career has been examined (and re-examined), but few curators attempt to cover his entire oeuvre. Picasso and Paper does so through the lens of a medium he liked to manipulate. The exhibition is a multimedia extravaganza, featuring everything from fine antique papers and invitation cards to envelopes, hotel stationery and recycled sheets from notepads. The sheer variety of techniques and materials is testament to Picasso's capacity for reinvention.
We begin at the turn of the 20th century with his Blue Period, which culminated in two celebrated works. Picasso made his etching debut with The Frugal Meal (1904), a melancholic portrait of a malnourished couple sitting at a table topped with a bottle of wine and a measly hunk of bread. La Vie (1903), a vast canvas painted in gloomy shades, has been variously interpreted as a symbol of the circle of life and an allegory of sacred love. Each section of the exhibition includes key paintings and sculptures.
From blue to rose. In 1904, Picasso moved to Montmartre and shrugging off the sorrow of his Blue Period took as his subject circus performers and itinerant artists. Towards the end of the following year he shifted his attention again, this time to a classical style inspired by artists such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Picasso's Rose Period was centered on works he created during a summer spent in the Spanish Pyrenees. Working in gouache and watercolour, he developed a terracotta palette that matched the shade of the soil and bore a texture similar to ancient frescoes.
It's no surprise that the big hitters have rooms of their own. Picasso filled 16 sketchbooks with studies for Les Demoiselles D'Avignon (1906-07), three of which are on display together with a full-scale reproduction of the final work and show how the composition evolved. Guernica (1937) is here too, via the great surrealist artist Dora Maar's photographic series of the hulking painting in progress.
By 1908 he was knee-deep in Cubism, creating papiers-colls (pasted papers) and collages that combine multiple perspectives within one tightly contained composition. A decade later, when his style had changed again, he was making realistic drawings sharp portraits of himself and others that are mostly white space. Working in pastel, he instilled figures with a monumentality reminiscent of classical antiquities. Head of a Woman (1921) is delicately shaded, with flecks of light illuminating her forehead and nose. Lines scratched into the dark-brown pastel of her hair creates the impression of soft waves.
It's impossible to discuss Picasso's art without sparing a thought for the women it depicts. Femmes leur toilette (1937-38), a giant collage of fussy wallpaper samples, is thought to represent his love interests at the time: his Russian ballerina wife Olga Khokhlova, Maar and the young Marie-Thrse Walter. When Picasso met Walter in 1927 his work took an erotic turn. She crops up in more than 40 sexualised prints and drawings, including as a consort in his etchings and engravings of the lustful Minotaur. In The Minotauromachy (1935), the sword-bearing creature is confronted by a girl clutching flowers and a candle; the light reveals the Minotaur's victim, a female toreador.
The Second World War came and went and Picasso continued to fill sketchbooks with drawings in pencil, ink, crayon, gouache and oil. When artists' materials were scarce, he resorted to the likes of pharmaceutical paper and as he did when he was a child created cut-out shapes from napkins.
He also never stopped studying the great masters. He took note of Eugne Delacroix's clever use of colour in Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement (1834) and created sketches and cardboard cut-outs inspired douard Manet's Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe (1863). Of course, he never copied instead he deconstructed compositions and figures and reworked what had been done before.
The exhibition comes to a close with La Mystre Picasso (1955-56), a documentary of the artist at work made by French director Henri-Georges Clouzot. The film opens with Picasso creating a black-and-white line drawing, then drawing and painting in colour. Lines and shapes emerge on the stretched sheet of blank newsprint as if from nowhere. And just as Picasso's use of paper was imaginative and ever-evolving, so too does his drawing morph from flowers to fish to chicken, before assuming its final form as a faun.
Picasso and Paper is at the Royal Academy, London, until 13th April.
Image Credits: Installation views of the Picasso and Paper' exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (25 January 13 April 2020). Photo David Parry/Royal Academy of Arts, Succession Picasso/DACS 2020, Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Cleveland Museum of Art in partnership with the Muse national Picasso-Paris. Image 1: Pablo Picasso drawing in Antibes, summer 1946. Black-and-white photograph. Photo Michael Sima /Bridgeman Images Succession Picasso/DACS 2019. Image 2: Pablo Picasso, Girl in a Hat with Her Hands Clasped, [Paris], autumn 1921, Pastel and charcoal on wove paper, 105.8 x 74.6 cm, Muse national Picasso-Paris. Pablo Picasso Gift in Lieu, 1979. MP945, Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Muse national Picasso-Paris) / Mathieu Rabeau, Succession Picasso/DACS 2020. Image 3: Pablo Picasso, Violin, Paris, autumn 1912, Laid paper, wallpaper, newspaper, wove wrapping paper and glazed black wove paper, cut and pasted onto cardboard, with pencil and charcoal, 65 x 50 cm, Muse national Picasso-Paris. Pablo Picasso Gift in Lieu, 1979. MP367, Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Muse national Picasso-Paris) / Mathieu Rabeau, Succession Picasso/DACS 2019. Image 4: Pablo Picasso, Woman with Lock of Hair, Barcelona, 1903, Watercolour on paper, 50 x 37 cm, Museu Picasso, Barcelona, Given by the Barcelona City Council, 1963. MPB 4.268, Museu Picasso, Barcelona. Photo, Gasull Fotografia, Succession Picasso/DACS 2020. Image 5: Pablo Picasso, Three Nudes, Gsol, summer 1906, Gouache, ink, watercolour and charcoal on laid paper, 61.9 x 47.9 cm, Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection, Gift of Leonard A. Lauder, 2016 (2016.237.10), 2019. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence, Succession Picasso/DACS 2020. Image 7: Pablo Picasso, Bust of Woman or Sailor (Study for 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon'), Paris, spring 1907, Oil on cardboard, 53.5 x 36.2 cm, Muse national Picasso-Paris. Pablo Picasso gift in lieu, 1979. MP15, Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Muse national Picasso-Paris) / Adrien Didierjean, Succession Picasso/DACS 2019. Image 8: Pablo Picasso, Study for the Horse Head (I). Sketch for Guernica', Paris, 2 May 1937, Pencil on paper, 21 x 15.5 cm. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, Archivo Fotogrfico Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofa, Madrid, Succession Picasso/DACS 2020. Image 10: Anonymous, Picasso next to the cut and folded cardboard sculpture of a seated man for Le Djeuner sur l'herbe, 28 August 1962, Gelatin-silver print, 23.8 x 18.3 cm, Muse national Picasso-Paris, Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Muse national Picasso-Paris) / image RMN-GP, Succession Picasso/DACS 2020. Image 11: Pablo Picasso, Self-portrait, 1918, Pencil and charcoal on wove paper, 64.2 x 49.4 cm, Muse national Picasso-Paris. Pablo Picasso gift in lieu, 1979. MP794, Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Muse national Picasso-Paris) / Mathieu Rabeau, Succession Picasso/DACS 2019. Image 12: Pablo Picasso, Study for Head of a Woman (Fernande)', Horta de Ebro, summer 1909, Cont crayon and charcoal on wove paper, 62.8 x 48 cm, Muse national Picasso-Paris. Pablo Picasso Gift in Lieu, 1979. MP642, Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Muse national Picasso-Paris) / Daniel Arnaudet, Succession Picasso/DACS 2020. Image 13: Pablo Picasso, Seated Woman (Dora), 1938, Ink, gouache and coloured chalk on paper, 76.5 x 56 cm, Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Beyeler Collection, Photo: Peter Schibli, Succession Picasso/DACS 2019.