Pablo Picasso never travelled to Australia. He never even visited the United States, where his reputation as the leading artist of the twentieth century was set in stone. It’s a different story for those works Picasso loved best, which have recently been seen in Madrid, Helsinki, Moscow and St. Petersburg; before crossing the Atlantic, to be shown in Seattle, Richmond and San Francisco. This triumphant tour concludes in Sydney, where viewers will experience the most significant and revealing display of Picasso’s work ever to come to these shores.
If this exhibition is a cut above the usual blockbuster it is because it has not been pieced together with whatever items local curators can wheedle out of foreign museums. Neither is it padded out with familiar works from Australian public collections.
The entire collection comes from the Musée National Picasso in Paris, and we owe its appearance in Sydney to a major building renovation. Another factor is the affection the museum’s director, Anne Baldassari, has for Australia. In previous collaborations with the touring agency, Art Exhibitions Australia, Baldassari has put together Picasso shows for the National Gallery of Victoria in 2006 and the Queensland Art Gallery in 2008, but neither of these exhibitions had such a high percentage of important original works.
Throughout his career Picasso (1880-1973) tended to hoard his own art, once boasting he was the greatest collector of Picassos in the world. By the time he was fifty he was already so rich and famous there was little need to keep holding commercial exhibitions, but the main reason he kept these works was their deep personal significance.
Picasso’s oeuvre is a form of visual autobiography through which we may chart his moods and preoccupations. It has often been remarked that each time he changed his wife or mistress, the work would undergo a radical shift. This has been used to support romantic theories about the artist’s dependency on his ‘muses’, but it is mainly a testimony to the way his life and art were inextricably intertwined.
This is the aspect of Picasso that appeals most strongly to Edmund Capon, who will end his long tenure as Director of the Art Gallery of NSW with this exhibition. He loves that fact that the artist’s work “was forever fuelled by his passions and emotions and every brushstroke wrought with intensity and feeling.”
For Capon “every painting by Picasso is indelibly inscribed with his heart and his mind. Indeed there is not a single work by this protean artist of the twentieth century that may deemed arbitrary. Every painting by Picasso is about Picasso.”
Looking back on Picasso’s entire career, as this exhibition allows us to do, we can see the tremendous emotional investment that accompanied every new invention or change of direction. Picasso was only half joking when he said: “Painting is stronger than I am. It can make me do whatever it wants.”
Upon his death, the French government negotiated with Picasso’s heirs to take a substantial donation of works in lieu of inheritance tax. From 70,000 works by Picasso and other artists, the French state was allowed right of first refusal. This collection would form the basis of the Musée National Picasso, which opened in 1985, in the Hotel Salé, a grand building of the 1660s located in the Marais district of Paris.
Over the years, the collection has been supplemented by further donations from the Picasso heirs and private collectors. It now contains almost 5,000 works by Picasso, including 254 paintings and 167 sculptures. It also holds much of his personal collection, including works by Corot, Degas, Cézanne, Renoir, Rousseau and Matisse, along with a vast archive of documents. The show in Sydney features some 150 pieces chosen by Anne Baldassari, who knows Picasso’s work like nobody else.
She has produced a show that combines a strict chronological sequence with a gradual unfolding of the key themes and motifs of Picasso’s art. In ten stages we watch the evolution of a career and note the way certain themes recur in different guises. The first forays into Cubism are coolly analytical, but some later Cubist distortions have an extraordinary violence. The female body may be as soft as silk or as rigid as a primitive idol. In this work love and hatred, intelligence and superstition, are never far apart. In his last years Picasso delved into the history of painting, creating variations on works by old and modern masters. The process, observed at such close quarters, is extraordinarily dynamic.
Baldassari’s ambition is to place viewers at the centre of the “process of internal transformation” that set Picasso’s oeuvre apart from that of every other artist. “At no point,” she says, “is the general public held at a distance or crushed by the sheer weight of these masterpieces. On the contrary, they are caught up in the dance of creation that is unfolding before their very eyes.”
Ideally, it is not enough that we stand and admire these pieces at a respectful distance. We are invited to try and understand Picasso’s most intimate thoughts and feelings mirrored in the artworks from which he could never bear to be parted.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald Picasso Supplement, 2011