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‘Picasso and Paper’ Review – Royal Academy

25th January — 13rd April 2020
Standard Ticket - £22
Student Ticket - £18


Walking into the RA’s new show ‘Picasso and Paper’, one is immediately facing La Vie (1903), an oil on canvas. It’s not quite the opening piece one would imagine for an exhibition about Picasso’s relationship with paper but nevertheless it’s a striking start. Definitive of grief, it is steeped in shades of blue, bodies curling into one another and symbolist elements. Beside the painting, however, are a series of studies for La Vie and it becomes clear that this exhibit is, in many ways, a loving ode to studies and sketches.

Pablo Picasso,Violin, Paris, autumn 1912. Laid paper, wallpaper, newspaper, wove wrapping paper and glazed black wove paper, cut and pasted onto cardboard, pencil, charcoal. 65 x 50 cm. Musée national Picasso-Paris. Pablo Picasso gift in lieu, 1979. MP367. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / Mathieu Rabeau. © Succession Picasso/DACS 2019. Image courtesy of RA's website.

We are immediately sprung into Picasso’s early work and in ‘Blue Period: 1890- 1904’ the walls are a stunning, deep navy to match. If 1890 is where the Blue Period starts, then Picasso is nine. Picasso’s relationship with paper starts early: two delicate cut-outs, Dog and Dove, are the earliest pieces in the collection. Picasso, born in Malaga in 1881, moved to Barcelona at the age of fourteen, and then later Paris, in pursuit of an artistic career. One of the fundamental events that brought about his Blue Period was the suicide of his friend, Carles Casagemas, which brought about a preoccupation with grief and melancholy that so deeply defines the art in this period.

The collection is already overwhelming, one room in. What strikes me most particularly, and consistently, is Picasso’s ability to express light upon the body. Sometimes it is rendered incredibly drastic with chiaroscuro-like contrast, but in other instances the light seems to melt into shade, the line of light indistinguishable from its cheek bone. This is a theme throughout: Picasso has a terrific ability to render both the exact, individual hairs laying across the frame of a woman’s face, and the abstract: large, fluid motions which seem to be thrown across the page.

Pablo Picasso,Head of a Woman, Mougins, 4 December 1962. Pencil on cut and folded wove paper from an album sheet. 42 x 26.5 cm. Musée national Picasso-Paris. Pablo Picasso gift in lieu, 1979. MP1850. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / Béatrice Hatala. © Succession Picasso/DACS 2019. Image courtesy of RA's website.

The whole collection drifts from period to period; 'Blue' becomes 'Rose', 'Rose' then becomes a room addressing the process of 'Les Demoiselles d’Avigon'. The thread that ties of all these rooms together is the opportunity to see studies for paintings, small form pieces, visual thoughts, transform into large scale paintings. A gouache sketch of his lover at the time, Fernande Olivier, becomes 1906 painting The Harem; there are consistent references to the work that produces the work; the fragments of the process that build a whole piece. There are iterations and re-iterations of drawings and the generative processes of a genius artistic mind are exposed to their most pared down features.

'Cubism, 1908-14', sees the introduction of different elements of artistic work: particularly experiments with new techniques such as papier collé, ‘pasted paper’, and collage, ‘an assemblage of disparate materials’. These are both representations of the very physical, malleable presence of paper and of a relationship with space. A particularly rife example of this is Guitar, 1912: a cardboard sculpture. It explores which mediums get to be included in the category of fine art and exemplifies that thread of constructing of a piece of work from other smaller, pieces. These smaller, contributory fragments are further exhibited in two large glass frames where fragments are suspended, floating in an expanse of space. These frames are in the middle of the room, meaning you’re able to walk around them and see these pieces of paper, the sketches, as whole entities. It is fascinating to see how pieces are stuck together - pins are like exoskeletons for the pieces of work.

Pablo Picasso, Seated Woman (Dora), 1938. Ink, gouache and coloured chalk on paper. 76.5 x 56 cm. Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Beyeler Collection. Photo: Peter Schibli. © Succession Picasso/DACS 2019. Image courtesy of RA's website.

The latter half of the exhibit, spanning the eras of his work until his death, sees several other kinds of experimentation too. Picasso’s set and costume designs for a ballet, his poetry, neo-classical pieces and sparse works composed of linear lines all make an appearance: he never stops seeking a new method. This becomes even more evident in the introduction of surrealism to his work and the introduction of Marie-Thérèse Walter to his life in 1927. She was 17 when her relationship with the 45-year-old Picasso began. With this relationship came a series of erotic artworks – a young female body becomes a point of fascination, obsession even, in sexual terms: it’s definitely not an easy reality to face and the RA doesn’t do enough of a job of facing it. One must make a point of acknowledging the difficult realities and shortcomings of those whose work we admire.

Picasso begins to construct overtly political art in the late 1930’s, particularly in response to the Spanish Civil War; his relationship with Dora Maar, who is also currently across the river in the Tate Modern, is shown too. It’s a lovely thought that several iterations of Weeping Woman are being suspended by London right now. His work jumps from being dark and light, collage and crayon, every method is met again and again and in the rooms titled ‘Last Studio’ we see all of these methods held at once: pieces are constructed and executed with a plethora of ability. Picasso was an artist who could do it all, and do it all beautifully.

Michel Sima, Pablo Picasso drawing in Antibes, 1946. Black-and-white photograph. Photo © Michel Sima / Bridgeman Images. © Succession Picasso/DACS 2019. Image courtesy of RA's website.

There are two images of Picasso himself that struck me from the whole collection. The first is a photo by Frank Gelett Burgess, Picasso is in his studio looking like a man possessed and it’s no question as to what with: work. There is something in his eyes which seems otherworldly, he isn’t completely present. I love this image; it’s exactly what one would expect from him. The other is the closing self-portrait of the exhibition. Drawn in 1972 it shows a gaunt skull, bold lines emphasise hollow cheeks, the eyes and mouth are tense, fear and anxiety about death emanate from the raw piece; there is only so much work that can be done.

I’ve been looking forward to this exhibition for months, and it doesn’t disappoint. It is an expanse of sensational work, piece after piece constructs the narrative of Picasso’s explorations, but if they weren’t so all beautiful they would be exhausting. Where the Tate Modern’s exhibition on Picasso in 2018 was wild and colourful, there is a tenderness to this show. It eases its viewer through the periods of his life systematically, introducing each element slowly, constructing a whole from fragments. In terms of accessibility, ignoring the ridiculous prices of the RA, it is also great. The layout is clear and comprehensible and throughout the exhibit there are several chameleon plaques which have encouraging artistic prompts and questions for children. It’s heartening to see this effort towards accessibility. The whole exhibition is heartening, a love letter to the work that often goes unseen.

Edited by Alexia McDonald, Head Digital Editor

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