Review: Drawing Inspiration

Menil Collection hosts ‘Picasso The Line’ exhibition through Jan. 8

Self Portrait by Pablo Picasso

Self Portrait by Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso’s output was prodigious to put it mildly. He is credited with 1,885 paintings, 1,288 sculptures, 2,880 ceramics and 12,000 drawings, not to mention countless prints and tapestries. Is it really possible to appreciate get to the essential genius in the face of such an overwhelming body of work?

In Carmen Giménez’s opinion, the answer lies in stripping away the color and the paint and getting to the artist’s purest form — drawing.

Following on from the curator’s “Picasso Black and White,” which she originated at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, The Menil Collection is hosting “Picasso The Line,” a simply stunning show that, while small in content, is epic in unlocking the key to the Spaniard’s genius.

It is an exhibition so simple, yet deeply profound. That both “Black and White” and “The Line” are curated by the same person comes as no surprise. Carmen Giménéz is founder and former director of the Musée Picasso in Malaga, Spain, and curator of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, and the two shows share an aesthetic — both strip away the clutter to reveal the essential artist.

The exhibition is arranged basically chronologically, which reveals Picasso’s process of exploration.

The four studies for “Demoiselles D’Avignon” are a fascinating glimpse into the process behind what is probably the most significant painting of the 20th century. Three of the collected drawings were executed on the same day, Sept. 18, 1907.

“Seven Dancers with Olga Khokhlova in the Foreground from a Photograph by White,” early 1919, ” is simply gorgeous. The lines are bold and strong, yet the women are graceful and sensual at the same time. Picasso perfectly captures the strength and athleticism that lies behind the grace.

One of the highlights is a magnificent portrait of Igor Stravinsky. Again, the lines are so crisp and determined. Picasso knew exactly what he wanted to do. Not for Picasso the timid sketchiness that we often find in lesser mortals. The sketch is vibrant and full of life.

In “The Painter and his Model” 1928, Picasso rejects the bold lines of previous years in favor of scribbly, doodly whimsical lines, yet this doesn’t take away from the fact that it is still strikingly attractive. There is a playfulness in what appears to be a hurried sketch, as if he is desperate to get a fleeting idea down on paper.

Picasso’s strength is the ability to reduce the complex into simplicity, but a simplicity that carries within it all the complexity of the human condition. This is especially true of the portraits.

There are three portraits of Francoise, his mistress. All are “the same in composition, yet each one captures a slightly different facet of the subject. One especially is drawn simply with five lines forming the hair and neck, and around 10 more for the face. Yet, in these few marks, he has produced a portrait that is both beautiful and also full of personality.

Igor Stravinsky by Pablo PIcasso

Igor Stravinsky by Pablo PIcasso

A series of studies for “Le Mirror,” from 1941, offers multiple versions of the same image. They are all alike, yet each one is radically different. It is almost like one of the “spot the difference” cartoon panels, except in these, one sees the artist’s mind playing with the theme, searching for the ideal combination of elements. There are things added and taken away, and even the occasional style shift, but always the same.

There is also a remarkable series of lithographs of a bull from 1945. The first is a fully formed drawing, with tones and shading, fully rendered and representational. By the time the series reaches the end, having gone through a reductive process, the abstracted rendering is still unmistakably a bull, but no longer rendered realistically. It shows the thought process of the master as he plays with the form and seeks the simplicity in the design.

And of course, being Picasso, there are the drawings of women late in his life. With their distorted perspective, large hands and feet, they are both grotesque and highly sexualized, but beautiful, nonetheless.

Giménez gave a talk to open the exhibition on Sept. 16, where she said that, in her opinion, Picasso is first and foremost “the line,” including his sculptures which are line drawings in a physical space. She said that sometimes the color on the paintings obscures the line work.

Even the Picasso “Black and White” exhibition was, in many cases, a drawing show. Giménez argued that some of the images were really drawings but because they were paint on canvas, they are considered paintings.

Many of the drawings in the show are being shown for the first time, including work from his family’s collection.

The self portrait that is the catalogue’s main image, shows the young artist staring straight out at the viewer. The drawing is not overly detailed, yet shows a determination and intensity that brims with self-confidence.

Giménez said that people enjoy looking at the drawings because they are not distracted. It is art in its purest form. It forces one to really look.

Giménez said that the two shows “Black and White” and “The Line” reflect her view that, while Matisse could be said to be color, Picasso is certainly black and white — that is his strength. She is right. Everyone loves the paintings, but to really get in the mind of the 20th-century’s greatest artist’s mastery of technique and imagination, one needs to examine the drawings. In the simple act of making a mark on paper, he surpasses most everyone else combined.

It is in the simplest work that the complexity of genius is truly found.

This exhibit will show nowhere else, so make sure to go.

The Menil Collection is located at 1515 Sul Ross in Houston.

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