The Three-Dimensional Pablo Picasso the Prolific Spanish Artist Maintained an Internal Dialogue over Whether He Should Sculpt or Paint

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THE photographer Brassai exhaustively recorded Picasso's sculpture with his camera. He also wrote down some of Picasso's words about sculpture.

"It seems strange to me," Picasso told him, "that we ever arrived at the idea of making statues from marble. I can understand how you can see something in the root of a tree, a crevice in a wall, a corroded bit of stone, or a pebble.... But marble? It stands there like a block, suggesting no form or image. It doesn't inspire. How could Michelangelo have seen his David in a block of marble?"

These words are quoted in the catalog to a current people-deluged exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London (through May 8) called "Picasso: Sculptor/Painter."

It is rather engaging to overhear the great art wizard of the 20th century expressing a kind of incredulity at the colossal capacity for visualization that enabled the great genius of the High Renaissance to (as his contemporaries more than once phrased it) "give life" to a block of marble.

Picasso gave life to bits of corrugated cardboard, twisted wire, discarded or purloined parts of wooden furniture, the toy cars of one of his children, a bicycle seat and handlebars, a wicker basket, a tailor's dummy, nails and screws, and a burner from a gas stove.

The end of the Brassai quote about sculpture makes clear that Picasso's approach was close to the magical metamorphoses of primitive tribal sculpture.

An otherwise ordinary thing or material, often by the merest suggestion, can suddenly be read as a man or animal or fetish. Brassai quotes Picasso as saying: "If it occurred to a man to create his own images, it's because he discovered them all around him, almost formed, already within his grasp. He saw them in a bone, in the irregular surfaces of cavern walls, in a piece of wood.... One form might suggest a woman, another a bison, and still another the head of a demon...."

Out of his "found objects" Picasso - not unlike a conjurer - made birds and baboons, men and skipping children, goats and women. The wicker basket became the goat's rib cage. The bicycle parts became a bull's head. The burner from the gas stove, without any intervention on Picasso's part except to present and title it, became "The Venus of Gas."

As the Tate show overwhelmingly illustrates, Picasso gave new life to the whole concept of what sculpture is or might be - but he did so by adopting the primitive and even the childish as an antidote to sophisticated traditions of an academic sculpture. The tradition stemmed from antiquity, as well as from Michelangelo himself, who was a devoted admirer of the sculpture of ancient Rome and Greece.

One similarity Picasso bore to Michelangelo (a incidentally he kept plaster casts of the renowned Italian's "Slaves" in his studio) was his proficiency in a variety of mediums. He had what Giorgio Vasari, early biographer of Michelangelo, described as a "universal ability in every art."

If Picasso didn't have a particular craft skill in ceramics, welding, or sheet metal, then he collaborated with those who did. In the process, he achieved an extraordinary combination of cooperation and deliberate challenge to the established limitations of the technique. Picasso had many works cast in bronze when he felt they should be so preserved, and some proved almost impossible to cast.

But the one traditional technique of sculpture he did not pursue, at least in any conventional sense, was carving.

John Golding, who, with Elizabeth Cowling, selected the works for this exhibition, proposes the idea in his catalog introduction that "carving was simply too lengthy and laborious an activity for an artist of Picasso's questing, restless spirit. …