(Pablo) Picasso's Century (Picasso: Masterworks from the Museum of Art - Exhibition)

Queen's Quarterly, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

(Pablo) Picasso's Century (Picasso: Masterworks from the Museum of Art - Exhibition)


PATRICIA LEIGHTEN is an art historian specializing in the art and politics of the early twentieth century. She is author of Re-Ordering the Universe: Picasso and Anarchism and the forthcoming Art, Anarchism and Audience in Avant-Guerre Paris. She is joining the Department of Art and Art History at Duke University after having taught for several years at Queen's.

Very early in his career Picasso had already decided that he would create the art of his century, leaving behind the "impressionist melody" to render on canvas the spirit of his age. From before World War I - "the Cubist War" - to the Dove of Peace, no other twentieth-century artist has better represented the hopes and anxieties of a world violently interrupted by the brutality of war. The art historian Patricia Leighten comments here on five among the most meaningful canvasses currently on display at the National Gallery of Canada, which from part of the exhibition, "Picasso: Masterworks from the Museum of Modern Art."

The Frugal Repast

The subject of this etching from Picasso's early period is poverty and social isolation, visible in the threadbare clothing of the couple and the haunting simplicity of the meal. Close in style and theme to the artist's Blue Period work The Blind Man's Meal of the previous year (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), the forms of the figures are elongated in the style of El Greco in order to emphasize their sensitivity and their plight. The blind man in the latter work, and possibly the man in this etching, cannot see; rather he is focused on an inner vision that parallels that of the artist unappreciated by a materialist society. Picasso, a participant in the turn-of-the-century anarchist movement in Barcelona and Paris, frequently evoked themes of poverty and depicted the ills of an unequal society, neglectful of the arts and spiritual life. Such early preoccupations are continuous with such later works as Guernica of 1937 (Prado Museum, Madrid), an outcry against the fascist bombing of a civilian population during the Spanish Civil War, and The Charnel House of 1944-45, an outraged response to the first news of the holocaust from the advancing Allied front.

Head of a Sleeping Woman

One of the joys of this exhibition is the opportunity to see works such as this superb study from Picasso's "African" period, which is not always on view at its home institution in New York. Here Picasso attempts to shock his contemporaries by appropriating the forms of African art - such as a Kota "reliquary" he saw in the Musee d'Ethnographie in Paris, with its diagonal lines carved on the face - for expressionist purposes. This painting and others in this style, such as the monumental Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (unfortunately not included in the exhibition), oppose the style of academic painting with its delicate outlines, depiction of clear three-dimensional space, halftone shadows clarifying rounded forms, and naturalistic colour. Here he has brutally simplified forms, harshly outlining them in dark and antinaturalistic colours, and flattened space by surrounding the figure with drapery forms treated in an identical style. Above all, he has treated the human face as an "African" mask, suggesting his greater admiration for non-Western than Western art and announcing the modernist overthrow of traditional values in art and, by implication, in society. …

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