A blockbuster exhibition, Picasso : Challenging the Past opens next week at The National Gallery - and not , as you might expect, The Tate, which would normally be the venue for exhibitions of Modern art.
The history to this is that twelve years ago the two galleries reached an agreement. Modern art, they said, began in 1900. It was perhaps on a par with the government deciding in its wisdom that history finished with the building of the Berlin Wall. This, of course, was to ensure that no untoward politics could creep into the syllabus. It created anomalies, as it was bound to: for instance that the building of the wall could be part of a history syllabus, but the knocking down of it could not. So the kids could have the first half of a story, but not its conclusion. In the case of our two galleries, however, their agreement was meant to ensure that the Tate was free to acquire anything dated post 1900, but before that The National gallery was to have the monopoly. (Nicholas Penny, the new director of the National Gallery, is keen to renegotiate the definition of Modern art, but meanwhile points out that the agreement covers acquisitions only, not exhibitions and loans.)
Seven years ago it was the Tate launching a Picasso plus... blockbuster exhibition, that one highlighting the intense personal and artistic rivalry that existed between him and Matisse. They showed it in blow-by-blow fashion, two great artists slugging out their I-can-do-that-better-than-you obsessions. The exhibition was a wow and so The National is hoping they can work the same trick and pull off a similar financial success. Their hope is pinned to a show which will give us Picasso taking on, not Matisse on this occasion, but the old masters as he vies with them for the ultimate accolade: tell us, pictures on the wall, who is the greatest artist of us all. We will see him, metaphorically, of course, giving the icons of the past a bashing. Alongside, Goya's Naked Maja, for instance, we will see Picasso's version. Well, not actually alongside, for the curators do not want to encourage a spot the difference attitude in the viewers. Not much chance of that, I would have thought, as in most cases there are few similarities, if one is being literalist or formalist, that is.
I shall hope to get along to the exhibition at some point, if only because included in it is a Picasso of which I am particularly fond, in which I think I see something of Guernica for instance. The painting in question is The Rape of the Sabines, which I show below, beneath the Poussin original - can I call it that without intending any disparagement to Picasso? It should be an interesting tournament,for, as Chris Riopelle, points out, in these types of engagement the Old Masters usually win hands down. I hope I can be there to see for myself.
Picasso employed a system called refactoring to develop an image from a purely naturalistic form to one abstracted to show the essence of a subject.
In 1945 he produced a series of 11 lithographs of a bull which has come to be regarded as a master class in the use of the system. Here I reproduce some of these images, each one of which represents a stage in the development of his image. I pick the sequence up at the second lithograph. Before this, Picasso had drawn a very life-like bull (the first lithograph) and now we see him beefing it up to make it almost more life-like than life.
At the third stage he begins to analyse it, putting in lines of force and delineating contours created by bones and muscles. His lithographic crayon follows much the same paths that would have been followed by a butcher chopping up the carcass.
From stage 4 onwards Picasso is simplifying, taking out unimportant planes and combining others, producing a new distribution of weight and balance, making the bull appear more solid even than it was before.
My last image is also Picasso's last in the series. It is the destination to which he has been headed throughout the various transformations.
If you are interested in following this process in greater detail, you might like to go to here, where the full set of lithographs, together with a more complete explanatory commentary, can be found
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