Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 6, 2011
Elizabeth Cowling and Richard Kendall Picasso Looks at Degas Exh. cat. Williamstown, MA and Barcelona: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute and Museu Picasso, 2010. 354 pp.; 310 color ills.; 9 b/w ills. Paper $45.00 (9780931102868)
Exhibition schedule: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA, June 13–September 12, 2010; Museu Picasso, Barecelona, October 14, 2010–January 16, 2011
Pablo Picasso. Portrait of Sebastià Junyer i Vidal (1903). Oil on canvas. 126.4 x 94 cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. David E. Bright Bequest. M.67.25.18. © Museum Associates / LACMA / Art Resource, NY / © 2010 Estate of Pablo Picasso / ARS, New York.

The exhibition Picasso Looks at Degas at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute opened with a statement attributed to Picasso: “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” That Degas was among those judged worthy of theft—discerned as early as the young Spaniard’s first show in Paris (1901)—was first connected to Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Robert Rosenblum (in Je suis le cahier: The Sketchbooks of Picasso, ed. Arnold Glimcher and Marc Glimcher. Exh. cat. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1986, 53–60). In Picasso: Style and Meaning (New York: Phaidon, 2002), Elizabeth Cowling opened the way to a broader affiliation by questioning Picasso’s insistence that the brothel monotypes were the sole works by Degas that had ever interested him. Together with Degas specialist Richard Kendall, Cowling has paired the artists in an exhibition with broad, popular appeal. Offering exhaustive treatment of the topic, the richly illustrated catalogue will remain a standard resource for the two artists, each of whom grounded an art of daring originality in the academic tradition of draftsmanship focused on the human figure.

Picasso Looks at Degas,” according to the mission statement in the opening gallery, “is the first exploration of Picasso’s lifelong fascination with Degas’s art and personality, and sheds light on the emergence of twentieth-century modernism by providing new insights into the multifaceted creativity of these two great artists.” Given the borrowing clout of the curators, and the thoughtful planning of the display, visitors saw this mission accomplished within an intimate hanging of comfortably spaced, mostly small works worthy of close attention. Tactfully economical wall labels reiterated Picasso’s tenacious interest in his predecessor and signaled affinities between pairings of works, often analogous in subject or pose. The value of the undertaking did not solely reside in its extension of the record of Picasso’s debt. The differences that sprang from the walls of this exhibition provided fresh purchase on distinct, unshared aspects of the two artists.

The first group of comparisons featured youthful self-portraits, academic figure drawings, and exercises in naturalism. A drawing of a female model by Degas (ca. 1860–65, pl. 48) shows obedience to the Ingres tradition of delicate, firm contour executed with hard, sharp pencil. Picasso’s analogous drawing (ca. 1899, pl. 49), made with the blunter, softer medium of charcoal, announces the emphatic continuity of bounding contour to which, between the World Wars, he would give an energetic, erotic charge in his drawings of dancers and his etchings of mythological nudes.

Next, a foyer shared with other exhibition spaces precedes a staircase that led to the body of the exhibition—a potential disruption cleverly handled to advantage. Supervising the ascent, as if looking down from Montmartre’s slopes, an over-life-sized photograph of a genial Picasso on Place Ravignan, taken around the time of his move to Paris in 1904, introduced a room devoted to his initial responses to the art capital. A map showed the proximity of the studios of the two artists. Though they apparently never met, there were common acquaintances. Both were briefly represented by the dealer Ambrose Vollard; the exhibition included a portrait by Picasso of Benedetta Canals—friend of his lover, Fernande Olivier, wife of his Barcelona crony, Ricard Canals, and former model for Degas.

Dominating the room, a pairing of Degas’s In a Café (L’Absinthe) (1875–76) with the Blue Period Portrait of Sebastià Junyer i Vidal (1903) exemplified the way in which Picasso would subject his plunder to metamorphosis. The sharing of the downbeat motif of a couple seated beside intoxicants was less striking than the divergent generational concerns represented by the paintings. Obliquely framing an artless, dingy setting, Degas observed nuanced instances of counterpoint, such as that between the arm and head positions of the self-absorbed male and female. Specificity of place and moment are obliterated amid the cold blues of Picasso’s flattened composition, in which a world-weary state of mind is lent disquieting, iconic presence.

In a section devoted to female bathing and grooming, Picasso’s Woman Plaiting Her Hair (1906, pl. 206) hung beside a large and strikingly raw drawing of the same subject by Degas (ca. 1896–99, pl. 223) to indicate, according to a wall label, that the “inconsistent handling and visible alterations to the composition [of the Picasso painting] suggest the influence of both the style and the imagery of Degas’s late drawings.” This valid point bolstered the genealogical connection between the artists at the expense of a blurring of the distinct aspects of their shared practice. In addition to admiration of the late work of Cézanne, Symbolist disdain for closure and restless pursuit of painting as “a sum of destructions” resonate in Picasso’s non finito. As boldly employed by Degas, this feature is consistent with a Realist keenness to sketch surprising observations of mundane things.

The fiercely competitive nature of Picasso was set forth to comic effect by a striking trio at the opening of the section “The Ballet: Homage and Humor.” The Clark’s cast of the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (1878–81), thrillingly unprotected by vitrine walls, was flanked by an edgy Standing Nude (1907, pl. 140)—a cousin to the Demoiselles d’Avignon—and The Dwarf (1901, pl. 120), a nocturnal entertainer in tutu. Picasso’s harshly colored canvases offer impudent variations of the fourth position struck by the Little Dancer. Much of this section was devoted to Picasso’s interest in dance in the late teens and twenties. This, as described in a catalogue essay by Kendall, coincided not only with marriage to the ballerina Olga Khokhlova and collaborations with the impresario of the Ballets Russes, Serge Diaghilev, but also with the exhibition and sale of the contents of Degas’s studio in the aftermath of his death in 1917. Picasso’s return to modeled sculpture in the wake of a major exhibition of Degas’s work at the Musée de l’Orangerie in 1931—comprehensive in its inclusion of bronzes cast after the artist’s death—provides another instance of competitive mischief encouraged by renewed contact with the Degas oeuvre. The comic contrast between the buoyant Fourth Position Front, On the Left Leg (1880s, pl. 172) and the galumphing, biomorphic Bather with Raised Arms (1931, pl. 173) was enhanced by the label, which soberly states, “their shared emphasis is on equilibrium.”

Darkly comic competition was most evident in the final section, devoted to Picasso’s admiration of Degas’s monotypes of brothel interiors, nine of which the younger artist acquired between 1958 and 1960. In the twilight of his life, preoccupied with death, loss of virility, and his place among the masters, these prized possessions acquired enhanced immediacy for Picasso. In March of 1971, he etched the first of thirty-nine brothel fantasies, in which the reticent Degas, faced with proffered bulge and orifice, makes an appearance as keen observer, apoplectic client, or, in one instance, both. In this outburst of geriatric graphomania, Picasso—for whom art and sex were inseparable (and who claimed that he painted the way others bit their nails)—could patronize the celibate master whose work he so evidently esteemed. The ambivalence is enriched by regard for the predecessor as father figure. Persuasively, an early rendering by Picasso of his own father and first art teacher, José Ruiz Blasco, was paired with a self-portrait photograph by Degas. In addition to the resemblance of the older men, the photograph of Degas belonged to Picasso, who may have been responsible for blacking out a second figure to give undivided attention to the master. That this image was kept close at hand is documented in a photograph of 1958 by André Gomès of the interior of Picasso’s late home, La Californie. Included as a blow up in the exhibition, the Gomès photograph shows the pensive features of Degas striking a dignified contrast to a jumble of creative bric-a-brac.

In their zeal to establish affinities, the curators occasionally overstate their brief. To align Picasso’s ferocious painting The Three Dancers (1925) with a Degas oil, Dancers at the Barre (ca. 1900, pl. 162), Kendall attaches in the catalogue an overly literal emphasis on physical pain to the forcefully artificial Degas, with its shared tutu, off-center symmetry, and absence of facial expression (144). Regarding the striking contrast of Picasso’s Nude Wringing Her Hair (1952, pl. 226) with Degas’s Combing the Hair (La Coiffure) (ca. 1896, pl. 227), Cowling holds, surprisingly, that “the differences are of degree, not kind” (204). Such special pleading is hardly necessary to validate the amply demonstrated argument of Picasso Looks at Degas. Nor is the value of the exhibition diminished by dissimilarities that bear witness to the fertility of creative misunderstanding in the making of art.

Jonathan P. Ribner
Associate Professor, Department of History of Art and Architecture, Boston University