In the fall of 1909, the young Pablo Picasso modeled a clay and plaster sculpture of a female head, a searching, experimental work that now, cast in bronze, is considered a modernist icon, a benchmark in the development of Cubism. Head of a Woman (Fernande) is both radically new and strangely traditional; it simultaneously questions and reaffirms the time-honored conception of sculpture as solid form. (At the time Head of a Woman was made, Picasso and his friend Juli Gonzalez's reinvention of the discipline as open construction was still two decades in the future.) Confronted by the sculpture, you are acutely conscious of its dense singularity and just as acutely aware of the action of Picasso's hand, pinching and patting the clay, tweaking sharp-edged planes and squeezing blunt ones into being. Features--details of hair, a tensely turned neck--are all accounted for, translated into aggressive ridges and hollows where you might expect smoothly inflected volumes. Yet all of these ferocious articulations appear to emanate from a solid core, as though the urgently worked head were fraying where mass meets air. The dully reflective surface of the bronze accentuates this double reading, heightening material presence by emphasizing evidence of the artist's touch and dematerializing the sculpture through the play of light.
Recently, the National Gallery, Washington, D.C. acquired a bronze cast of Head of a Woman (Fernande)--a fine example, almost certainly made for Picasso's legendary dealer, Vollard, before 1932. This past fall, to celebrate, the museum presented "Picasso: The Cubist Portraits of Fernande Olivier," a fascinating, tightly focused examination of the nearly seventy studies Picasso made of Iris companion between the spring of 1909 and the winter of 1910. (1) The comprehensive, impressive assembly, drawn from private and public collections around the world, included both familiar and seldom seen works in a great variety, of media: paintings and works on paper--oils, watercolors, gouaches, and drawings in everything from pencil to ink to charcoal to chalk--plus two 1909 plaster versions of the sculpture, used in making the first casts, one from the Latner Family Collection, Toronto, the other from the Nasher Collection, Dallas; photographs of works in the studio enriched the mix.
The eye-testing, exhilarating opportunity to compare the National Gallery's bronze with the two plasters and the plasters with each other was justification enough for the show. The opaque whiteness of the plasters revealed things about surface and structure far less visible in the bronze cast, while alterations in the reading of similar incidents provoked by the reflective properties of the metal made you reevaluate the role of light in sculpture. (The complicated history of the plasters and the known casts of Head of a Woman, along with informative details about Picasso's process and technique, are discussed in an excellent catalogue essay by Valerie J. Fletcher.) But the show did more than provide a context for Head of a Woman (Fernande); it also made you see this familiar work freshly and made you concentrate on a key moment in the development of Cubism: the summer of 1909, spent in Horta de Ebro, Spain, when Picasso wrestled a new pictorial language out of his admiration for Cezanne, his grounding in classicism, and his taste for the primitive.
One caveat. Even though unmistakable resemblances among the exhibited works made it evident that they all were "about" an identifiable individual, calling the show "portraits of Fernande Olivier" was slightly misleading. In picture after picture, the subject's full-cheeked oval face, high cheekbones, and powerful column of neck, the poise of her head and breadth of her forehead announced their common "source," often making you reconsider the place within Picasso's private history of paintings and drawings you had never consciously connected with Fernande Olivier. Yet none of these images was a portrait in the usual sense. …