2023 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Pablo Picasso, and commemoration exhibitions of Picasso 1973-2023 have been initiated by the Musee National Picasso-Paris, main lender of the event and co-ordinator and Bernard Picasso, grandson of the artist and President of the Picasso Museum in Malaga. The Guggenheim Bilbao is hosting Picasso Sculptor: Matter and Body, an exhibition focusing exclusively on Picasso’s sculpture and highlighting his process and materials.
These works are shown with great space around them, allowing the viewers to walk around the exhibits and get up close with their eyes to their texture and gestures. The exhibitions are spread across multiple spaces, allowing visitors to go on a journey through the multiple different periods that influenced Picasso’s choices, looking at pieces which demonstrate Cubism, abstraction, primitivism and the found object.
“Picasso burns with the fire of a household god or daemon, those deities that live by the hearth and have power from the family dwelling.”
The tour of the Picasso rooms opens dramatically with one of the two bronze copies of ‘Woman with Vase’, a fertility goddess, larger than life, cast from an original plaster mould. It was originally cast in cement for the 1937 Paris World Fair, but one bronze now stands at the artist’s tomb, and the other is here to light the way into the exhibition and demonstrate that this is going to be a journey into the ancient past and a veneration for attributes of roundness, fecundity and also the solid presence of the female figure. This piece could light the way down the narrative tunnels of Picasso’s sexual relationships, but this is not the focus of this review with the new documentary studies about the women in his life that deal with this subject with seriousness. Also, Bernard Picasso put it well in a conversation, saying that Picasso’s subjects were those that were important to him, and he had strong domestic relationships. I feel the presence of a man who was at home with women and who liked to work at home or inside a household. It came to me poetically that Picasso burns with the fire of a household god or daemon, those deities that live by the hearth and have power from the family dwelling.
The challenge to transcend a moment in time that was being expressed in Cubist painting became part of Picasso’s 3D experiments. These sculptures might be simplified to connect them to ancient and divine images or twisted, chopped and broken to make them feel the spread of multiple moments in time. Picasso used the matter of solid objects to challenge form and space but always worked with his hand and eye, even when working collaboratively with craftspeople, friends, and fellow makers. This is the impression that comes strongly to me of his childlike love of making, of getting his hands dirty, getting ambitious in the ‘playroom’, and just seeing what happens. With his work, there is no sense, not for me, of an artist who makes a plan and gives it to others to execute, even though this might be the case with the bronzes.
Picasso began to use found objects quite early on, and this continues along the chronological path of the subjects. Items that were lying around in his studio would be incorporated into his pieces. I don’t feel that he went looking for characterful objects on a mission, but rather that he found bits of wood, frames, springs and a colander in ‘Head of a Woman’ (1929-30). Bernard Picasso confirms this impression, suggesting it is a sculptural equivalent of when he pasted newspaper onto a canvas in a painting, breaking the rules. Of course, now the shock value has gone, but it’s still possible to appreciate the choices and form and look through the form at the materials that make up that form.
Ex-voto objects are part of Picasso’s practice of looking back to inspiration from ancient cultural ideas of the function of sculpture. He created eyes and hands, like the physical symbols given to the gods in Roman and pre-Roman worship, intending that godlike powers would bring healing, health and strength to the devotee. Apparently, he carried the eyes around with him, wanting to keep their magical assistance close to hand.
Picasso worked in different scales, small and larger-than-life sizes, and I am taken with his ‘Woman with Leaves’ (1934), which reminds me of the pagan photography project that I have just been taking part in with artist Susana Sanromán in Galicia. Inspired by the presence of pagan spiritualism in the green mountains and rivers of Susana’s homeland, we walked the local landscape, picking up objects and also simply creating figures from materials we had to hand in the home. Our inspiration was perhaps more corn doll than a votive offering, and this resonates with Picasso’s ‘Woman with Leaves’ in which leaves are present, and the standing figure has an owl-like, forest-dwelling character, enhanced by the matt woody finish. Sanromán and I built figures out of bits of wood, root, and trailing ivy that we found on our walks, constructing effigy-like spirits which we then lit and photographed at night, ephemeral rather than permanent sculpture but which followed similar impulses to this element of Picasso’s approach. Picasso’s influence has changed the art world and has allowed us to take this playful approach without even questioning it. It’s fascinating for me to know that Picasso spent his early teenage life in Galicia, and I ask the curator, Carmen Giménez, about what she knows of this time for him and whether it had an impact on his own sense of the presence of the pagan. She says that for him, it was a very sad time as he lost his beloved sister over these years. The most formative city for Picasso as an artist was Barcelona, as he went there in 1895 and stayed for nine years. They were the years of his academic training and his breakaway from the establishment to join the coterie of artists and friends who had bohemian predilections.
Picasso felt that sculpture as a form of expression was comparable to drawing or painting, and he declared that no art was more or less important than the other. He had the freedom of a self-taught artist, ideas formed in the bohemian circles of Barcelona and Paris. This exhibition shows the pieces in the pride of the places, and it’s certainly impressive how the network has coordinated to bring them together. One of the pieces that for me was the most impressive at all, ‘Head of a Woman’ (1931), is lent by the Picasso Museum in Antibes. Usually, in its home museum, this is shown with a partner sculpture, a smaller version of the bust. But here it stands on a podium to protect it from the number of visitors. I have already made a note to visit this piece in its home in Antibes after the flurry of these shows. It is cast in cement rather than bronze, and I am impressed by how well this works. The features are in the shadow of their intent, drawing a line around the eyes and the mouth, picking out simply and beautifully the form of the face. I find the mere shapes of this piece very moving. By the way, I am told that Picasso never titled his work, letting the forms speak for themselves.
The cement retains more quality of the original material in which the sculpture was made, plaster. And these feel more homely than bronze, less impressive and temple-like than marble, less prone to being polished, and more rough and textural but still monumental on a domestic scale. I am really moved by it, charmed by it, and feel so much warm emotion from this piece. I will say again my poetic description of Picasso as a household demon, working in the home workshop to create pieces that amplify ideas of the divine spirits that speak of the value and strength of domestic life, the relationships of the bedroom, the quality of being in a nurturing friendly home space. That’s my impression of him as an artist through his work, his eyes burning through what is in front of him.
Of course, the twentieth is a very interrupted century. There are not many pieces that reference this. Picasso lived in exile during the Franco period and asked that some works return to Spain only once Franco was no longer in power. But the Skull (Death’s Head) (1943), cast in bronze, depicts the feeling of loss of body through the violence of war. It’s a depressing work, a slumped skull, a memento mori without the laughing quality that a skull can give unintentionally through its bone structure. It’s a protest piece. Bronze, with its heaviness, suits it.
I would like to finish with the later work in which Picasso turned to paper cutout and then realising the sculptures in folded and cut sheet metal, which is then painted expressively in simple black and red lines and fills. This is drawing with metal paint and line; the division between spheres of practice are collapsed, and painting and drawing exist simultaneously with sculpture in ‘Sylvette’ (1954) and ‘Head of a Bearded Man’ (1961). Time and form are collapsing in on themselves. The adult child is finishing with nursery pieces from the gallery. Some are straight and flat, others more curved, with a more tin-soldier paint finish. As a maker with my own interest in process, this was a fantastic show to see, and I just wish I could see more of the Picasso exhibitions in this anniversary year now hurrying to a close. I hear that Picasso’s ceramics are on display in Barcelona, and I very much wish I could see and experience that as well.
Words and photos Jude Montague ©Artlyst 2023
Picasso Sculptor: Matter and Body, Guggenheim Bilbao 29 September 2023 – 14 January 2024