Encounter Picasso at the Clark

Clark Institute of Art
Through August 27, 2017

Think you know Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)? You do and you don't. It's hardly your fault; Picasso began producing works when barely in his teens and continued unabated until his death in 1973. A visit to the Picasso Museum in Paris can be mind-boggling as it holds more than 5,000 works. There are another 4,000 in Barcelona, and you'd still have at least 41,000 left to view if you wanted to exhaust his output.

Dora Maar
If you're dizzy from even contemplating such a brush with Picasso, you can regain your bearings with a visit to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. There are just 38 Picasso works on display and these have been chosen to make a point, not to provide any sort of Pablo's Greatest Hits retrospective. Artists as prolific as Picasso draw inspiration from everywhere and the Clark's exhibit, "Picasso Encounters," is meant to be doubly evocative—we encounter Picasso through the eyes of some of the encounters that influenced him, among them: the Old Masters, cubists, printmakers, the stage, and women. Especially women. Picasso was, by today's standards, a serial womanizer, but les femmes were more than sexual conquests for Picasso; they were his muses. In fact, he had trouble working unless there was a woman (or two or three) in his life, whether they were kin, friends, wives, or mistresses. If you think that his modernist/cubist/surrealist mash-ups are merely eye-catching and strange, look hard at his 1937 Portrait of Dora Maar, the photographer and artist with whom Picasso had a brief affair. This painting is so lovingly rendered that the only adjective that really fits is 'beautiful.'

Picasso had many women in his life, the most important of whom were Maar, Fernande Olivier, Marie-Thérèse Walter, François Gilot, Olga Khokhlova, and Jacqueline Roque. He only wedded the last two, which means his domestic life was often chaotic. We see this in Minotauromachia, outwardly an amalgamation of modernism, a medieval woodcut, and the Greek story of the Minotaur etched onto paper. But it's also an allegory of Picasso's complicated home life, with the partially nude body of his mistress (Walter) lying across a horse fleeing the horned beast, while unfeeling Picasso's wife (Khokhlova) looks down from above and a figure that is probably Pablo hightailing it up a ladder to safety.    
The Italian Woman

We see different kinds of encounters in this exhibit as well, among them: an early self-portrait that owes much to Velasquez; a Cranach-inspired Venus and Cupid; and his 1953 The Italian Woman, which was influenced by the work of a relatively obscure 18th century painter named Victor Orsel. The last is a graceful front-facing portrait that would be suggestive of Mexican portraits tinged with Georges Rouault were it not for the impish figures etched above the model. For me the most surprising works were Picasso's linoleum cuts, not because they are necessarily his strongest images, but because they highlight the ways in which he kept his vision clearly imagined through several layers—like a chess player strategizing five moves ahead. Portrait of a Young Girl, after Cranach the Younger II looks at first glance like it an offbeat rendering of a red queen from a pack of playing cards until you think of what it took to produce this one print. Among other things, Picasso had to think through how every dot of red and scratch of black (of which there are many) would look like when the final version was inked and pressed. 

This is a thoughtfully curated exhibit that gives weight to the credo less is more. Is there more to say about Picasso? Of course, but the beauty of the Clark exhibit is that we can begin to hear some of those things without the cacophony of all that could be said about him.

Rob Weir     


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