It is all too easy to buy into the one-dimensional cult of genius that surrounds the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso and is propagated by art historians, intellectuals and sometimes, the artist himself. Blinded by hero worship, many shows and retrospectives of his work tend to read as compulsory efforts to represent his megalithic talent. But “Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris,” on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through April, works hard to debunk the myth of Picasso as a singular genius. Instead, it examines the cross-pollination of ideas with other artists that accounted for his mutable creativity between 1905 and 1945.
Organized chronologically and thematically over eleven galleries, the exhibit features 214 works by Picasso, Fernand Leger, Constantin Brancusi and many other luminaries responsible for determining the trajectory of modern art. The show begins with his 1906 painting Self Portrait with Palette. Here, the artist has transformed himself into the self-assured, future leader of the Parisian avant-garde. The abandonment of his maudlin persona throughout the Blue Period foreshadows the artistic confidence present throughout the rest of the collection.
Cubism is often considered problematic for viewers because it is such a violent departure from the precedent of illusionistic painting. However, curator Michael Taylor (who currently teaches a graduate course on Picasso at Penn in conjunction with Art History 002 professor Christine Poggi) masterfully explains the complicated technique from its conception by Braque and Picasso through its demise. The replication of the Salon d’ Automne — the 1912 salon that introduced the general populace to cubism through the more legible works of Francis Picabia, Jean Metzinger and others — is absolutely delightful. The room replicates the salon down to the bright orange hue of the gallery walls and gives visitors the chance to sit back on a plush, circular day bed in the center of the room for sweeping views of the densely packed walls.
It is impossible to separate the contents of the paintings and sculptures in the exhibit from the cultural dynamism of the early twentieth century. Fernand Leger’s The City (1919) both imposes the excitement and bustle of Paris through its mechanical aesthetics and massive size and pays homage to the continuing viability of cubism between World Wars. Through the photographs of Man Ray and Arthur E. Gallatin, the “Americans in Paris” gallery takes a refreshing break from the large scale works in the main galleries to document the lively, interwar cafe culture that acted as an incubator for the artistic development of Picasso and his colleagues.
Picasso acknowledged the importance of mistakes in his art and posited that every work was a “sum of destructions.” In his early career Picasso was too poor to buy a new canvas when an old one would do and famously painted over, but never obliterated, his less successful pieces. Perhaps his refusal to erase mistakes was his personal effort to reconcile what seemed irreconcilable or a refusal to obliterate any art or life in even the most rudimentary form. The works in the final gallery, “Death and Sacrifice”, are a literal and macabre summation of Nazi destruction during World War II.
In an article about collage in a 1952 issue of Art News, the late formalist art critic Clement Greenberg instructed that the words and headlines ripped from the pages of newspapers and found appropriated in artworks were simply strips of paper that should not be combed through in search of symbolic meaning. It is easy to write off Still Life: the Table (1914), a collage by Spanish modernist painter Juan Gris that is featured in the exhibit. However, defy Greenberg’s advice and read the phrase imbedded in the work. “Le Vrai et Le Faux”, or “The Real and The Fake”, not only refers to the illusionism of the exhibit’s artwork, but also speaks volumes about Picasso the myth versus Picasso the collaborator. The marker of a winning exhibition lies in its ability to make a viewer consider an artist from a unique perspective. By providing visitors an intimate view of the artist at his most creative and collaborative, “Picasso and the Avant-Garde” truly succeeds.
Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris Now — April 25 $16 student tickets