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Picasso and Photography Barbican Gallery, London


At first glance, the Picasso exhibition at the Barbican looksrather austere stuff. Following on from the Royal Academy's show of Picasso's ceramics last year, it might seem like another examination of a pretty marginal part of the great painter's activities, something which only scholars and enthusiasts will find interesting. But stick with it. Like almost everything connected with Picasso, it turns into benign anarchy, a riot of merriment.

Picasso has a strong claim to be the first artist in history who was interested in photography as photography. At the time, the height of photographic ambition was to imitate Old Master paintings. Picasso turned this ambition on its head. He was interested in the flat effects produced by photography; the casual pile-up of objects which results when a snap is taken; and the way photography, in those days, reduced the world to a series of flat browns and greys.

He was, in short, interested in bad photography. One of the joys of this rewarding and rather hilarious show is seeing quite how banal the origins of Picasso's art actually are. A photograph of a couple of children taking their first communion is too routine even to be absurd. Anthropological photographs of African tribesmen are stolen by Picasso for the figures in many of his greatest paintings, such as Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. The photographs aim only to catalogue and shed light upon exotic customs; Picasso turns them back into figures of terrifying savagery.

A regular, though not very accomplished, photographer, Picasso kept records of his paintings by this means. There are glimpses here of the evolution of several important paintings, including Guernica, which all show a fascinatingly decisive mind in full flight. But the importance of photography to Picasso was really that it showed him how to simplify his art, make its design cohere.

Photography takes everything - a vase of flowers, a human being, a painting, a shadow - and gives it roughly the same depth and solidity. …