Anyone who has paid any mind to the New York art world this week knows that MoMA has opened its much-hyped “Picasso Sculpture” show, the largest museum survey of sculptures by Pablo Picasso in nearly 50 years. In honor of that exhibition, we turn back to the October 1967 issue of ARTnews, when MoMA opened the first-ever American retrospective of Picasso’s sculptures. Written by Lawrence Gowing, a curator at the Tate, the review describes the survey as “possibly the last of the great exhibitions.” (Perhaps it wasn’t really, if the glowing reviews of “Picasso Sculpture” are to be believed.) Gowing’s review follows in full below. —Alex Greenberger
“Object-Lessons in Object-Love”
By Lawrence Gowing
A great survey of Picasso sculptures, many of them lent by the artist, opens the new season with a bang at the Museum of Modern Art
Picasso’s way with sculpture is the same as his way with everything else—purposeful, amorous, ingenious, restless. His production has been sporadic and largely incidental to his work as a painter; for periods of up to 10 years he did nothing in three dimensions. He has only occasionally had any use for “straight” sculpture, the poker-faced modeling or carving of tradition, and then only a summary one. He is more inclined to extemporize a medium of his own for a special purpose.
At some crucial moments he relied on it. From 1912 on, for example, he achieved the simplification of Cubism, which finally detached it from Post-Impressionist styles, not only thought collage but, apparently at the same time, in three dimensions through relief constructions. Crazily put together out of paper and card, they have been largely perished where they have not been translated into tin, but they allowed him to make the shifting and contradictory intimations of volume real. They converted the half-subjective flux back into palpable solid objects. From that point on the way was open to the symbolic overlapping planes of Synthetic Cubism and eventually to the Three Musicians: sculpture, or anti-sculpture, had served its purpose and Picasso abandoned it again.
The originality of the method and the style that resulted are matters of history. Looking at the exhibition of sculpture that Picasso has released from his stores, one is aware not of history so much as of something personal and timeless, like a private magic. The sculptures rarely have the toughness or harshness of Picasso’s painting. The exacting realization of the pictures is not attempted. The typical sculptures, by contrast, simply exist. They are relaxed and casual, as if done by habit or ancient custom, and they are even more various than the paintings. One has in this exhibition a sense as if of the distant past; it is like an accumulation of artifacts of some noble, ancient tribe over a millennium or so, united only by an immemorial pattern of culture.
It is a culture of physical things. It revolves round a cult of the object, a care for everything that can be fastened together or pulled apart, to make the likeness of other things, to evoke most of all the magic image of creatures, so that the common stuff of things takes on a disturbing pulse of life. It is a cult that makes a man in one mood a magpie and in another a voracious lover. He is not merely an artist; he is a compulsive collector of every rubbishy token of the protean nature of things; he is the pious guardian of household gods.
Picasso’s work is what, for want of a word, we call sculpture testifies reportedly to an attentiveness and a kind of devotion that lie quite outside the artistic outlook of his time. His rejection of the immediate past and the whole apparatus of optical impressions, visual effects and the structures dependent on them, was apparently due to an attitude to the object, and a very old one. Quite apart from the reminisces of primitive art, there are signs of simple and primal standpoint to concrete reality. By contrast with the civilized and elaborate equations for experience that culminated in Post-Impressionism—the complexity that eventually crystallized into geometrical abstraction—Picasso’s attitude was quite direct. His attachment to the object and the art-object hardly distinguishes between them. For him artistic equivalence rests first and last on recognizable analogy. However audacious, it is nothing more or less than a kinship of shape—the kind of analogy that can, among the cherished totems from the rubbish heap, be demonstrated and recognized between, say, a bicycle and a bull. The artist’s tour-de-force is to show the art-object to be equivalent to a real object; it is a kind of piety to hold it not only comparable but similar in kind, ultimately perhaps no more precious. Picasso enjoys a fantasy that the saddle and the handle-bars, which he has converted into a bull’s head and horns, might one day be converted back again and reclaimed for bicycling.
The act of recognition and conversion is a tribute to the inherent virtue of things. It imparts something to both; it identifies a ferocity in the bicycle, and it lends a threatening poise to the bull. The dual quality adds up to a demonstration of tragic grace; it is understandable that Picasso should have liked the thing, for the tragic grace is a quality of his own. His hoard of sculpture-objects is in great part a hoard of poetic conversions. They have been preserved like fetishes, talismanic souvenirs of marvelous conjunctions.
There is much else in the exhibition. There are presentations and representations, translations, transmutations and metamorphoses, each, with hardly an exception, discovering in one way or another the special concreteness of objects. One of the oddest possibilities, which Picasso hardly pursued, was opened up in 1930. Possibly remembering the network of lines punctuated with the dots of some drawings that were being cut on wood for Balzac’s Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu, Picasso made a construction in wire in which a figure is connected with the room it stands in—walls, a window, and even the outlook from it—all incorporated together in one complex yet transparent form. It is the kind of occurrence that makes one wonder how many of the ideas that were in the air presented themselves first of all to him. In the next year there is another clue. A standing nude is whittled out of wood to a knife-like frontal thinness, as if carved and grooved by the currents of space that flow past the sharpened profile. Picasso was moving in another direction, but Giacometti might have seen this at just the right moment when it was cast in bronze and exhibited four years later. An original artist looks at the better when we know that he was not alone.
The relationship with his time and his theme disclosed by the most famous of Picasso’s sculptures in the ’30s, the big plaster heads, is not so satisfactory. The connection with the final Jeannette which Matisse modeled 20 years earlier was natural; the transformation of a woman’s features and hair into great sensual lobes must have appealed to Picasso in love, and there are signs that his admiration was not unduly respectful. (An air of contrivance in Matisse’s parade of voluptuousness in the ’20s might well have seemed ridiculous.) What prevents the big Boisgeloup head from being the masterpiece it was intended to be is not the debt so much as the traces of incompatible realities. The formulation has a faint suggestion of the kind of Post-Impressionist modeling in which the left eye, for example, would be comprised in the fold above the cheek. In the context the incised almond-shape has the character of an afterthought, betraying something ungenerous in the takeover.
Picasso’s reversions to classical fluency have in sculpture rarely the meaning that they possess in other mediums; in three dimensions the subtle obliqueness, a quality akin to quotation, evaporates. But the Cubist method of fragmentation reveals something fresh at each return, even when it approaches self-parody. The later paintings of World War II, for example, applied the analysis to sequences of planes and the paradoxical boundaries between them, until the provinces of a body, charted with subversive logic, were shown to be disturbing in themselves. This analysis of surfaces has had a curious sequel in the ’60s, in works which qualify as para-sculpture, though they are in fact folded drawings, copied in sheet metal by an assistant.
The best of these, portraying Jacqueline Roque, are the most concentrated of all the later works; indeed they are among the most intense of all the speculative metamorphoses that Cubism has led to. The province of a human head, and Picasso’s old subject, the mysterious joining and parting of planes in the zone which we may see, as we like, as either the median line or the indented frontier, the profile, gives up a few more of its secrets. The variations are a series of gay, fierce games, ending in solutions which are marvelously fearsome and sphinx-like. One of them has as its central axis down the bridge of the nose to the chin, a shadow-stripe of red, like a final disrespectful takeover of Matisse and Le rayon vert.
The final twist of the Cubist analysis—the surface of a head which is folded back in eight-way creases from the point of the nose (like incipient Origami) to identify tenderly the planes of cheek and pointed chin—is still a tribute to the object. The whole exhibition is an object-lesson in object-love, and that is enough to account for the sense it gives of the past. The last of the definitive and revealing accumulations of work has emerged from the studios of the men who created what used to be called “modern art.” There are no more such exhibitions to come, and there are no more demonstrations in store of possible kinds of correspondence between art and the object.
The new art will have no attitude to objects. It will not recognize the category, expect as disposable requisites or industrial installations, between which the natural man will slither, naked as an elver, feeding inwardly on his dream. The forms and planes with which art deals will be at root metaphysical. A marker or two in the void and a label are not enough to identify them. Sculpture begins here; ends here; this or that insignificant foreign body is hereby subsumed to the esthetic context; you are now entering the art-occupied zone. The mere announcement gives us warrant to get on with the serious business, spinning the ideas that cocoon the art-dream.
If this is a joke, then all the rest was so. The role of the artist as an unworldly mediator, who by the bare indicative gesture will open uninhabited regions to fantasy and speculation, is not an unwelcome one. The interest of the old world, in which physical things were the immemorial basis of value, will remain. Children will read about it at school. They will repeat by rote the vanished properties of the objects and eventually learn enough magic to create household gods of their own. Picasso is likely to rank not only as an artist but as a part of the common imaginative ancestry. In the meantime we can visit what is possibly the last of the great exhibitions.