Spanish artist Pablo Picasso embraced many styles in his long career. He was out of touch with abstract art. But his painting consisted of abstract forms, as the new Brussels exhibition ‘Picasso & Abstraction’ shows.
“I have an aversion to all so-called abstract painting. Abstraction, what a mistake, an absurd idea. If you put shades next to each other and randomly draw some lines across them without matching anything, you are highly engaged in decoration.’ Was signed, Pablo Picasso.
It is just one of the many quotes from the exhibition at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels, where Picasso expresses his disdain for abstract art. And yet his art exudes a lot of abstraction. This is precisely what the exhibition, created in collaboration with the Picasso Museum in Paris, will demonstrate. In around 160 works, you can see how Picasso’s idiom developed and how more and more abstract forms appeared in it.
This makes the exhibition interesting and even educational. You don’t go from one masterpiece to another. Rather, from a series of sketchbooks and drawings to the final result on the canvas. “The exhibition is a good exercise for the eye,” remarked our photographer. She is right. Every detail matters.
It is no coincidence that some large photos of Picasso in his studio at the beginning of the exhibition adorn the walls. You imagine yourself in that studio and must conclude that he is constantly breaking new ground. In that sense, you can also call him a forerunner or a lighter of the abstract art of which he so much disapproved.
In the approximately 160 works in the exhibition, you can see how Picasso’s idiom developed and how more and more abstract forms arose.
The young Picasso was a figurative painter. That changed in 1907, when he visited an exhibition of ethnographic objects in Paris. Masks and sculptures from Africa and Oceania. Some of these items can be seen at the fair in Brussels. One can immediately see why they were so interesting to Western artists in the early 20th century. The imitation of nature, including man, was no longer interesting. The Impressionists already knew that.
The African statues did not imitate nature for centuries. The shapes didn’t seem right. Legs too thick or too long, head too angular. Nose and eyes are not in proportion to each other. It is precisely these rough, often geometric forms that Picasso and the other Cubist pioneer Georges Braque loved. Add to this the influence of the French painter Paul Cézanne on Picasso. He believed that one should not paint nature without other forms than cylinder, sphere and cone.
Picasso took that advice to heart. In 1907 – the concept of cubism did not yet exist – he painted ‘L’Arbre’. You do not recognize stem and leaf. Picasso depicted the three dimensions of a tree in two dimensions. In other words, he flattened the tree. The eye does not recognize it as such. That is why we usually call the painting abstract. Picasso would probably not have agreed. All elements in the tree are present. We just don’t look good.
It wasn’t always so abstract in the early 20th century. In 1911, Picasso created a beautiful sculpture of a woman’s head. Clearly recognizable in form and facial expression. The woven hair alone seems a little more abstract.
Picasso went further and further in abstracting from reality. It led to the so-called analytical phase of cubism in 1911 and 1912 – we didn’t say it’s an educational exhibition. The painter separated all parts of an object from each other. First to study them, then to reassemble them in countless small fragments on the canvas. The color did not interest him. Picasso did not go beyond grey, brown or ochre. And then you are at the exhibition for the beautiful ‘Man with a pipe’ from 1911. Do you recognize a man with a pipe? Not at all. Do you recognize a pipe? Yes, if you search for a long time. Also an eye. And a nose.
Picasso continued that process. A recurring theme is the guitar, with or without a man or woman playing. Sometimes the guitar is replaced by a violin or a mandolin. Picasso did not limit himself to paintings. Particularly beautiful is the sculpture ‘Violin and bottle on a table’ from 1915, where wire and nails were also used.
Picasso, as well as Braque, made collages for a while, adding textile elements to the paintings on the canvas. These collage elements were gradually released and replaced by painted objects.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Picasso began to paint much more colorfully around the same themes. Less interesting because it feels like a variation on a familiar theme. Maybe he thought so too. Picasso slowly but surely moved to emphasizing lines instead of geometric shapes. With a guitar work from 1926, he goes very far. It is nothing more than a piece of fabric with a nail and string. It’s a nice interplay of lines. The same applies to ‘The Painter and His Model’, also from 1926. It is a real painting, teeming with lines. Once again, Picasso challenges you. Where is the painter and where is the model?
Picasso became more violent over time, right up until the end of his life in 1973. His last works in the exhibition date from 1970 and 1972. They are colorful and aggressive and not yet abstract. Better stand by two small drawings in the penultimate room. One is called ‘Coupling’, the other ‘Couple in love’. Both are from 1933. The second drawing was first called ‘Rape’. The fine lines cannot hide that the main character in both drawings is the Minotaur – half man, half bull.
Picasso, who boasted of his virility, liked to identify with that monster. You could call both drawings abstract because it is not so easy to see anything recognizable in them. But the master wanted to educate himself. ‘Abstract art does not exist. You always have to start with something. Then you can remove any resemblance to reality, the danger is over because the idea of the object has left an indelible mark.’ Was signed Pablo Picasso.
‘Picasso & Abstraction’ runs until 7 February at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels. Catalog published by Lannoo.