Hilton, Tim, The Independent (London, England)
THE TATE's compelling Picasso exhibition allows mortal art-lovers the opportunity to consider the private ruminations of a genius who could not bear the thought of his own death. When Picasso died in 1973 he left no will and no instructions about the immense collection of his own work that he had been building up for half a century and more. Eventually this hoard was sorted out and cataloguing begun. Some works were given to the artist's dependants, but the bulk of the collection went to the French state in lieu of death duties This is why we have the Picasso Museum in Paris, the major lender to the present show.
In effect, Picasso studies began afresh as the implications of the hidden treasures made us reassess his art as a whole. In the last 15 years there have been big exhibitions in Paris, New York and London, and in each of them there has been more to wonder at. New knowledge of the sculpture has been especially significant, for Picasso was particularly protective of his three-dimensional work. "Picasso: Sculptor / Painter" at the Tate now attempts an overview of his life as a sculptor. It has the premise that he was as much an innovator in sculpture as in painting. That's probably true, and the show is a moving - though puzzling - account of one of the great upheavals in modern art.
The display is a triumph for the exhibition's curators, Elizabeth Cowling and John Golding. Of course, their account is not complete: it could never be. The emphases of the exhibition will be disputed. Personally I would like to have found more Cubist constructions and fewer of the very late pieces in folded cardboard. Important works that have recently appeared on the art market have eluded the selectors. On the other hand their scholarship and diplomacy have brought extraordinarily rare loans to the Tate (the exhibition's only venue). Here are sculptures we have previously known only in contemporary photographs. There are unfamiliar paintings too, for Cowling and Golding have been diligent in seeking out canvases that complement Picasso's sculpture. So this is also a painting exhibition, and the balance of works in different media is perfectly judged.
Initially, though, the paintings look much more important. Picasso had been a fluent artist with pigment and canvas for years before he made his first sculpture. Indeed one is puzzled to know why he did not seriously take up sculpture until 1906, when he had been painting with ease and conviction for a decade. I explain the omission by looking at the other sculpture of the era. It was still dominated by Rodin, an artist of little interest to Picasso. And sculptural innovation had turned into the decorative projects of Art Nouveau. Picasso saw plenty of such art, both in Barcelona and Paris, but again he was not moved to emulate its forms.
The 1906 busts of his mistress, Fernande Olivier, are of much interest but hardly compare with the new maturity of Picasso's painting in that year. Seated Nude with Crossed Legs, as is well known, is a landmark on Picasso's route towards "primitivism". The serenity of this picture, however, is that of a master classicist. Picasso's primitivist sculpture lacks mastery. The oak Figure of 1907-8 is contemporary with the epochal Demoiselles d'Avignon. But while the painting bursts with ideas, the sculpture is constricted.
Picasso's sculptural genius was liberated by the Synthetic Cubism that followed the invention of collage in 1912. Previously, sculpture had either been carved (reduced from a block) or modelled (built up and adjusted from supplies of malleable material). Cubism's discovery was that sculpture could be made simply by putting things together, whether they were pieces of wood, sheared metal, found objects or indeed practically anything. This principle was to stay with Picasso all his life. The exhibition now shows the immediate advantages for Picasso's art. …