Exhibit's early still lifes show a confined, though still grand, Picasso

June 21, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Philadelphia -- If one had to name the single most important episode in the long career of Pablo Picasso, it would probably be that brief period around 1910 when he and Georges Braque created the first phase of cubism (called analytical cubism), thereby revolutionizing modern art.

The elements of cubism -- including abandonment of traditional perspective and illusion in favor of analysis of the object from several points of view at once, use of everyday materials, introduction of collage and constructed (rather than modeled or chiseled) sculpture -- changed art radically and had implications as far-flung as dada, abstract expressionism and pop.

And the type of subject matter associated with cubism above all others is the still life.

So you would expect Picasso's still lifes from this great period to reflect the artist and his concerns as completely as anything he ever did.

How strange, then, that the fine and important show "Picasso & Things: The Still Lifes of Picasso" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art leads to exactly the opposite conclusion: that the period of analytical cubism did not liberate but confined Picasso, did not reflect his true nature but required him to force himself into paths that were in essential ways uncongenial.

Not that the works from this period are less than major. On the contrary, the examples here, including the paintings "Bottle, Glass, and Fork" (1911-1912) and "Dead Birds" (1912) and the collage "Still Life with Chair Caning" (1912) are not only among Picasso's most important but among the 20th century's most important pictures. But they are far from his most characteristic.

Consider: Picasso was an intuitive and mercurial figure, always changing, always developing, creating almost as he breathed. The birth of cubism required him to concentrate over and over on the same kind of picture in the same kind of way, dissecting and reassembling the object, dissecting and reassembling.

Picasso was a man of Gargantuan appetites and energies, physical, emotional and mental. In a painting such as "Still Life on a Table" (1931), with its boldness of line and form and color and its overt references to the female figure, one senses the presence of the artist so much more directly and forcefully than in the muted, brown-gray palette and small gesture of early cubist paintings such as "Bottle, Glass, and Fork."

All his life Picasso was concerned with the terrible and often violent interplay of life and death. That concern is reflected at many points in this show, from the early "Skull, Inkwell and Hammer" (1907) to the late "Trussed Cock" (1962). He could take a subject as normally pretty and optimistic as flowers and, in "Vase of Flowers on a Table" (1969), make the flowers look like eyes and mouths angrily, even frantically defying oblivion. Most of the still lifes here are anything but still in the sense of calm or quiet.

But the early cubist ones are; even when Picasso breaks away from the more usual glasses, bottles and pipes to introduce the subject of "Dead Birds," the potentially charged theme of death is subordinated to the analytical demands of cubism.

Picasso's art responds to the world around him, as can be seen over and over in this show. In the 1930s and early 1940s, for instance, the years of the Spanish Civil War and World War II, the still lifes are filled with death, anger and depression -- "Flayed Head of a Sheep" (1939), "Still Life with Steer's Skull" (1942).

But the development of cubism involved a turning away from the world to such an extent that the show's catalog calls it "hermetic." To look at the works of 1910 to 1912 is to imagine Picasso in a room with no doors and no windows and only a few props on a table, which he obsessively arranges and rearranges, on the table and in the picture. Toward the end of this period, among other collage elements, he introduces cuttings from newspapers into his works -- as if, unable to bring in the outside world, he settled for including reports of the outside world.

Picasso's still lifes from most periods are loaded with symbolism, often reflecting his belief in certain undying spiritual and artistic values. In "Palette, Candlestick, and Head of a Minotaur" (1938) he asserts his belief in the immortality of art as a beacon to the spirit even in dark times.

But in the early cubist years the role of symbolism is less important. The objects exist more for the purposes of the picture alone and less to stand for something outside of it.

One does not sense that these objects could not have been made emotional or symbolic. An artist who can make a flower defiant and an apple voluptuous could surely do similar things with a bottle or a pipe. One senses rather that Picasso in the early cubist years willed himself, perhaps for the only sustained period of his life, to the supremacy of form over content.

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