Picasso and the Allure of Language
Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University
Durham, North Carolina
August 20, 2009 – January 3, 2010
Picasso and the Allure of Language takes the artist’s engagement with language beyond the smattering of words and letters that rise to the surface of Pablo Picasso’s Cubist paintings. For curator Susan Greenberg Fisher, language becomes a way to read, see, and contextualize Picasso’s work, and tells the stories of his art from angles that veer tellingly away from the visual. Language is not literally or narrowly defined in this exhibition, but expands, quite imaginatively, to include fiction, inscription, revision, narrative, and conversation.
The painting “First Steps” (1943), which portrays a child learning to walk with the help of his mother’s hands, might not bring language to mind, as viewers’ eyes are most likely engaged with noticing Picasso’s depiction of the child’s awkward attempts to move through space, which is so skillful it seems like the boy is about to kick beyond the picture plane. However, Greenberg Fisher has placed one of Picasso’s preparatory sketches for the painting, “Study of Feet” (1943), next to it. “Study of Feet” encourages us to see the work’s connection to paper, writing, and language, as it depicts the two feet on two pages from the sports section of Paris-Soir, flipped into a horizontal sketchpad. Picasso represents the child’s clunky left foot so it stops and shoots up at a right angle to look like a newspaper fold, a resemblance that extends to the simple set of squares and triangles that compose the boy’s jumper. These connections allow us to see the child’s “first steps” as not just physical, but as an entry into the space of language.
Picasso is a singular genius of Modernism in our cultural imagination, but this exhibition reminds us that his talent expanded and deepened through his collaborations with others. His earliest collaborations arose when he moved from Barcelona in 1904 to the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris, where he met Max Jacob, André Salmon, Guillaume Apollinaire, and of course Gertrude Stein. Picasso and the Allure of Language testifies to Stein’s importance as Picasso’s collector, collaborator, and rival. She owned “Vase, Gourd, and Fruit on a Table” (1908-09) with its emerald green tablecloth tousled in pointed folds upon a wood table whose triangular form is suspended unhinged in the painting’s imaginary air. Picasso has modeled the sharp-edged vase with white, black, and brown so subtly it takes on a peach-colored tone. A green gourd shaded with black floats below it. The rough but lyrical distortions of “Vase, Gourd, and Fruit on a Table” allude to Paul Cézanne’s still lifes, which inspired Picasso’s innovations with the language of forms and Stein’s experiments with the forms of language.
Charming and delicate, “Dice, Packet of Cigarettes, and Visiting Card” (1914) testifies to the intimacy of Stein and Picasso’s friendship. The objects in the title are randomly arranged as though they have been gently tossed upon a table that Picasso has rendered with a simple charcoal line that cuts across the picture plane at an oblique angle. At the bottom right-hand corner of this small collage (it is only five-and-a-half by eight-and-a-quarter inches), Picasso has adhered the actual visiting card from Stein and her lover Alice B. Toklas. The card has the names “Miss Stein” and “Miss Toklas” engraved delicately on it, and the corner has been folded over to indicate they had visited Picasso’s studio in person. Covering the card’s other top corner is Picasso’s rendition of Toklas’ pack of “Elegantes” cigarettes, which includes the cover, decorated with dainty vines and leaves, and the label, which reads “contributions indirectes” (a tax on consumable goods). In the exhibition catalog, Duke Art History professor Patricia Leighten writes that this label “honors” the ladies’ “‘contributions’ to his work” while stressing that their influence is “indirect.” The dice—one black, one white—are disproportionately large, simple, and cartoonish. The cigarettes, rendered with pencil, are the most ephemeral and imaginative part of the picture, so light it looks as though Picasso drew them with smoke.
Stein was not the only poet with whom Picasso collaborated, and his contributions to a lithographed edition of Pierre Reverdy’s book Le chant des morts (“The Song of the Dead,” 1948) attests to the artist’s sensitivity to meditations on mortality and war. To depict the poem, Picasso imitated the angular but fluid lines of Reverdy’s own handwriting. Around the space of the stanzas, Picasso inscribed thick lines and circles with bright, orange-red ink. These forms, simultaneously austere and dramatic, slide around the poems with elegiac grace, foreshadowing work such as Robert Motherwell’s “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” (1961).
Narrative also offered a way for Picasso’s talent to unfold, and Picasso and the Allure of Language displays etchings composed to accompany literary texts such as the biblical story of Salomé; Ovid’s Les métamorphoses; Aristophanes’ Lysistrata; and Honoré de Balzac’s Le chef-d’oeuvre inconnu, the story of a painter who worked so relentlessly on a woman’s portrait it became abstract. “Painter and Model Knitting” (1936), an etching from the Balzac series, is a delightful meditation on a few of Picasso’s signature styles. The painting within the etching resembles the circular forms and loose tangles of lines that characterize Picasso’s depictions of Marie-Thérèse Walters. The model sitting to the side of the canvas, who knits absentmindedly with a bowed head, alludes to the women of his neoclassical period with their smooth sculptural profiles, as well as his early engagement with Iberian masks. Perhaps this is the most rewarding aspect of Picasso and the Allure of Language: seeing how Picasso discovered and recognized his imagination in the mirrors of others’ stories and words.