I’ve always found myself utterly captivated by Picasso’s work since first seeing his paintings at the age of about nine, and can never resist the opportunity to see dedicated exhibitions of his work. This particular exhibition is all the more absorbing because it allows visitors to trace the ways in which Picasso chose to deal with interlocking themes throughout his artistic career.
The exhibition, located within the Hungarian National Gallery, was due to run from April 22nd to July 31st however has now been extended to run until August 28th, which can only be a good thing. Transfigurations, 1895-1972 is the second Picasso exhibition I’ve seen so far, and whilst I couldn’t possibly say it’s ‘better’ than Becoming Picasso; Paris 1901 at the Courthald Gallery back in 2013, it’s certainly much larger and surprisingly thorough for an exhibition that takes you through seven decades of Picasso’s art.
The first section looks at very early works from 1895-1906, and the one that caught my eye and held my attention above all others was The Frugal Repast (1904). The facial expression of the female figure is undoubtedly the most evocative element of the image. She appears almost entirely despondent and barely there at all, yet her piercing eyes and their sharp gaze prove an intense awareness of her surroundings. If this were a photograph and I were in conversation with Roland Barthes, I’d single out this woman’s eyes as the ‘punctum’; I find her gaze genuinely disturbing and almost chilling.
The Frugal Repast set the tone for the rest of the exhibition for me; I found myself forced to focus so heavily on looking closely at the human body and searching for the detail that seems to burst into life that I spent much longer in the exhibition than planned, feeling almost sucked into the images, trapped in time.
The second part of the exhibition looks at Picasso’s work from 1907-1916 and marks a radical shift in his artistic style. The Cubist Deconstruction and Reconstruction section features the famous Portrait of Ambroise Vollard (1910) and is jarring to behold compared to the more natural, softer lines in Picasso’s earlier works.
Reinventing the Classical Line then takes you from 1917 to 1925 where his art became somewhat more delicate again. This is most notably evident in Dancers (1917), where the women’s bodies demonstrate a combination of light eroticism and supreme elegance. By this point you feel as though you’ve been forwards and backwards in time once already, and the fourth section of the exhibition does not allow you to resettle or get comfortable.
Surrealist Metamorphosis is unquestionably my favourite section and this is partly because it is arguably the most varied. The works on display running from 1925-1936 cover Picasso’s exploration of the body and its various forms, including the half-man, half beast creature, the minotaur.
The Kiss (1925) is deeply intimate, showing two bodies exploring one another as though they are seeking to become ‘one’ both physically and spiritually. The figures are disembodied, as though they have been deconstructed and reformed, and yet they make perfect sense together. To me, this painting sends a message about the meaning of true intimacy or ‘togetherness’; the merging of two separate bodies and minds which come together to form a new construct and somehow fit together without needing to adapt at all. This gently erotic exploration of another’s body is also found in Female nude in a Garden (1934), where a woman lies exposed in all her curvaceous rapture among the grass and flowers. Whilst there is no one with her, it is impossible not to feel the presence and intensity of the artist’s gaze on her body, as if he sought to ‘know’ her in the way that the lovers in The Kiss know each other.
Another painting that will hold your gaze for some time is The Acrobat (1930), which on closer inspection is less grotesque than it initially appears. I no longer believe that this painting is in any way to do with deformity (as I did at first), but rather about the power and flexibility of the human form.The acrobat transcends the ordinary abilities of the human body and in this way represents our desire to push ourselves beyond our normal limits, whilst simultaneously drawing attention to the fact that it is often our bodies that prevent us from doing so, not our minds.
Woman with a watch (1936) highlights the irreversible flow of time, emphasizing the ageing process as the woman ponders her reflection in her mirror. The woman is folded into a confined space, demonstrating the body’s malleability and perhaps the fears of isolation that come with old age. This painting aptly communicates to us the poignancy of the fact that we have no control of time, its effects or its velocity, and that one day we will all grow old and perhaps be unable to recognise ourselves in the mirror.
The next section titled War Figures contains work from 1937-1945, the most striking of which is Young boy with a crayfish (1941). This painting signals a departure from the exploration of post-pubescent female bodies to the body of a male infant. The boy’s extroverted facial expression and powerful grip on the crayfish emphasize the surprising strength and confidence of a child, but when coupled with the depiction of his exposed genitalia and erratic placement of his limbs, there is also a comment on vulnerability and the inability to influence one’s own destiny.
The sixth part of the exhibition titled, Return to the Origins revisits Picasso’s preoccupation with primitive art as previously seen in his exploration of the minotaur years before. Running from 1945-1953, this section is most notable for its inclusion of a screening of Guernica (dir. Alan Resnais and Robert Hessens: 1950), an anti-fascist film about the bombings of the Basque town in 1937 where 2000 civilians were killed.
Finally, The Artist and his Model looks at the years between 1954 and 1972, the last two decades of Picasso’s life. In Study for Women of Algiers after Delacroix (1955), the female body is once again explored in detail. Picasso takes the softer bodies from Delacroix’s paintings and almost entirely rips them apart before rebuilding them, complete with harsh black lines splicing their bodies in two and emphasizing their full breasts. To me, this suggests a theme of fertility and power and the potential of the body to be put under extreme pressure and still repair itself.
Conversely, Fauns and Goat (1959) offers a much more flimsy interpretation of the body, where the dancing figures are similar in shape to the clouds above them. This appears very deliberate; their curves look very loosely drawn as though they have not been fully endowed with a solid body. Perhaps the artist took this approach in order to depict the fauns’ place within mythology, even suggesting that believing in such creatures is ‘flimsy’ in itself.
The exhibition as a whole is not only enriching for Picasso fans, but for any art lover in search of a collection of pieces that are at once wildly experimental and seemingly ‘random’, but which somehow fit so snugly within the artist’s oeuvre.