Picasso Sculpture, curated by Ann Temkin and Anne Umland at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, is the first in-depth survey of Pablo Picasso’s sculptural production since the exhibitions held in London and New York City in 1967. In the preceding years, Picasso’s sculptures were barely seen, even in reproduction, as the artist—with what I take to be his animist inclinations—held onto many of the works for dear life. The three-dimensional bodies kept Picasso company in ways stacks of paintings and drawings could not, and they nurtured his imagination in ways he needed.
The first gallery covered the first seven years of Picasso’s sculptural output, starting in 1902 when the artist taught himself how to model figures and heads, and—subsequently—how to carve wood, the latter in a Neo-Primitivist vein inspired by Paul Gauguin, as exemplified by Figure (1908), with its painted accents. However, even the Cubist bronze Head of a Woman (1909), which features silos plowed into the flesh to accentuate and energize the forms, could not prepare viewers for the second gallery, where representations of the body gave way to three years worth of Cubist still lifes, starting in 1912.
Picasso’s paperboard Guitar (1913)—which inspired a sheet-metal version to scale the following year—constitutes one of the great breakthroughs in Western art. Previously, European sculpture comprised closed volumes and weight. Picasso opened things up by constructing Guitar out of sheets of paperboard that are folded or joined together at right angles, or both. Since no more than a couple of discrete planes stress the front of the instrument, the inside is largely exposed to view, thereby introducing transparence—also found in Picasso’s and Georges Braque’s earlier Analytic Cubist paintings—and enabling the viewer to see that the body is built up exclusively of taut skin and is consequently light and fragile. Affixed to the wall like a relief as it cannot stand on its own, Guitar, which sits on top of a semicircle table jutting from the wall, is designed to be viewed both from the front and at an angle.
Traditionally, Western sculpture is chiefly about the body, either nude or covered to a greater or lesser extent with drapery. Picasso’s anti-illusionist, fragmentary rendering of an object made by a human being (as opposed to fruit or fowl, shaped by nature) is a still life, an exceedingly rare genre in Western sculpture outside of decorative or heraldic contexts. In Picasso’s hands, however, forms can take on multiple identities, and a curvaceous silhouette more often than not refers to the female body. In Guitar, the largest sheet lying in the foremost plane has a wave-like right margin ending in a wide half circle at the bottom; the wave is echoed in reverse and on a magnified scale in the back plane on the left.
The top curve on the right suggests a breast seen in profile, while the intimation of a circle beneath it suggests a hip transitioning into a thigh thrown over the other—imagined—leg. The open cylinder in the lower center of the composition evokes both the guitar’s sound hole and a woman’s sexually charged orifices, as well as her navel—an “innie” and “outie” simultaneously—above which a long, thin neck rises. The strings of the instrument allude to strands of hair, and the small triangle at the top of the neck stands in for the female’s head. Opened up in this way, the woman/string instrument is, on one level, eviscerated, a gruesome reading which is backed up by, say, the flattened seated figure in the bottom right of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and the dissected Baigneuse Assise (Olga) of 1930 (note the triangle with the two eyes at the top of the figure), two celebrated oil paintings by an artist who often handled the female body with unparalleled violence in his work. If this interpretation is correct, Guitar, which switches between one thing and another, opens an avenue toward Dadaist and Surrealist practices and prefigures another violated, insect-like female, namely Alberto Giacometti’s bronze Femme égorgée (1932). A musical instrument traditionally refers to harmony and, by extension, love. Despite its elegant classical equilibrium, Guitar’s asymmetrical body suggests something gone hopelessly awry.
Picasso’s sheet-metal Guitar (1914) is not carved, modeled, or cast. Instead, it is constructed and, in this respect as well, it marks a radical departure from sculptural precedents. Piecing parts together is associated with the labor of craftspeople, workmen, and engineers, and the new material of sheet metal—devoid of all artistic and precious connotations—is tied to the factory. The shell of Guitar has more in common with that of the Model T or an airplane than it does with the wood surfaces enclosing the void of a string instrument or the skin covering the flesh of a woman. Additionally, unlike marble, wood, or bronze, the hard surface of Guitar does not reveal the hand of the artist. Traces of the latter can only be found in the lines that indicate where the metal was cut. Like the work of an engineer, Guitar is all concept; its making could probably have been delegated to another person, which is not true of any painting or drawing by Picasso.
Scholars occasionally state that Picasso did his best to forget his academic training in order to reinvent drawing and painting on his own terms. With sculpture, Picasso dove into what was for him virgin territory, which allowed for a devil-may-care experimentation with forms, materials, and processes. Significantly, Picasso arrived at the form and structure of the paperboard Guitar first by way of Braque’s experiments with cut paper and then through his own, initially in two-dimensional collage-cum-drawings, and subsequently in three-dimensional paper constructions (the ones by Braque are long lost). Transposing qualities and ideas from one medium to another can reinvigorate an art form, as Giotto di Bondone and Masaccio demonstrated through their close studies of sculpture, which taught them how to achieve the illusion of solidity and space around the bodies in their paintings.
Cutting, bending, and joining replaced traditional processes in a sculpture that is all flat surface and either curvilinear or rectilinear lines—the flat planes and straight lines marking another radical departure from Western sculpture centered on the body—articulating voids and slicing through space in ways that anticipate Gerrit Rietveld’s Schröder House (1924) and Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye (1929–31). With Guitar, Picasso brilliantly transcended the model provided by the long-suffering Symbolist figures of Auguste Rodin, with their surfaces of bronze often rich with Impressionist-like facture. A more radical departure can hardly be imagined—except by Marcel Duchamp, who constructed his first assisted readymade, Bicycle Wheel, in 1913, and by Vladimir Tatlin, who saw work akin to Guitar in 1914 in Picasso’s studio, and took the Spaniard’s love for raw materials and geometric forms and steered it toward complete abstraction in his relief sculptures and counter-reliefs.
Having reduced volumes to planes circumscribed by lines, the transition to a plane-less, open sculpture of only lines was a logical next step for Picasso, the master draftsman, as demonstrated by the iron wire and sheet metal Figure from the fall of 1928. After lines, planes and full transparency, he made the leap toward voluptuous solid form with his classicizing plaster works of the 1930s, which hint at marble and are inspired by the contours of the young Marie-Thérèse Walter (Head of a Woman, 1931), the simplified pneumatic forms in the ancient sculpture from Cyprus, and the pure volumes in the work of late Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Aristide Maillol, and Fernand Léger. However, these white or beige monochromes should not make us forget Picasso’s daring use of paint in sculpture.
I am thinking back to 1914, when Picasso ordered six bronze casts of Glass of Absinthe and proceeded to desecrate the venerable medium by covering them with oil paint, radically transforming each work by way of the hues, values, patterns, and facture he applied to the unwinding shapes. I suspect that Picasso was thinking in terms of multiples, such as prints or clay pressed into molds, that could be altered in earlier practice through watercolor and glazes respectively. However, never before had color been applied as playfully and ambiguously to sculpture, switching three-dimensional parts on and off, or dimming them as if they were lights in a room.
The light of the plasters makes way for the darkness of bronze in works from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s—occasionally transformed through paint—in which found forms may or may not be combined with modeled ones in ways that seem more often than not heavy-handed, obvious, cute, or maudlin, as a figurative context is imposed on them. The obscene, terrifying, and grotesque Pregnant Woman (1949) is a keeper though. In this Surrealist masterpiece, a palm frond stripped of its leaves provides an endless spine at the top of which a short set of arms is balanced. In the middle, the shape of a bulbous vase comes from two tiny breasts resting on top of a sphere, and the bottom end is raised off the ground by an inverted V signifying small, spread-out legs.
Many of the bronzes—including those that are entirely modeled, with the possible addition of forms pressed into molds—do not work in semi-isolation within the white cube. Instead, rough as they are, they need a certain visual clutter and subdued lighting to take off, as witnessed in the photographs taken in Picasso’s studio and living quarters. Other bronzes, with their uneven surfaces, would read better in a garden or park, where the artist indeed had some of his sculptures installed.
One of the curators’ conclusions is that Picasso produced bodies of sculpture in tantalizingly episodic bursts, amid his ongoing outpouring of drawings, paintings, and prints. For instance, he didn’t create any sculptures between 1909 and 1912, or 1915 to 1927. In the eleven galleries, the sculptures were arranged in chronological order and grouped in series. However, I missed seeing the paintings from which forms and ideas embodied in the sculptures sprung forth or to which they migrated, but that would have required a much larger exhibition. The catalogue includes valuable documentation, as MoMA favors meticulously detailed chronologies of facts. But I yearned for a deeper analysis of the various series of sculptures Picasso produced over more than six decades, and for an essay on the impact his practice has had on the course of modern and contemporary sculpture.
Professor, School of Art, Rochester Institute of Technology
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