Cezanne, Michelangelo, and Greek sculpture in Picasso's early drawings.
The idea of Picasso always precedes the experience of seeing Picasso’s art. Looking at drawings from the artist’s early years in the Frick Collection’s cramped basement, I wondered what we can say about Picasso that hasn’t already been said. I’ve previously encountered this question with artists whose reputations (and market value) are in such high esteem that it is almost impossible to see the work as separate from the artist’s image. Even in this small show, with works that look decidedly un-Picasso, I found it difficult to view the drawings as anything other than work of this great artist.
It’s a bit like standing in front of the eye exam chart, squinting to see the letters we can barely make out but that we know are there. “He is getting more cube-like in this drawing,” I overheard a patron explain to her companion. “People kind of look like people in this one,” another said.
Running through my head, of course, were echoes of Walter Benjamin. His critique of modern culture’s stripping away of art’s unique quality (what he termed its “aura”) seemed potent. As if Benjamin predicted our fate, the loss of an artwork’s aura has withered away in an age when the surfeit of calendars and posters — not to mention the T-shirts and coffee mugs and refrigerator magnets — reproduce Picasso images for casual consumption. When we actually confront the original, can we see it for its own sake, or do we compare it to the copy in our minds?
Beyond this withering aura, something else strikes the viewer of these drawings: they question our understanding of creativity itself as a uniquely original endeavor. This question begins with the earliest of drawings. Created in his teens and 20s, when Picasso was caught between the classicism of academic art and the rumblings of Modernism, these works reveal both the careful eye of a draftsman and an experimentation with form. Picasso completed “Study of a Torso” when he was 14 years old.
| "Study of a Torso" (1895)
Other examples of Picasso’s realist precision include “Portrait of the Artist’s Father,” which renders the aging face in sharp contrasts of shadow and light. The realistic image is made up of small details that were undoubtedly taught to the young artist by the sitter himself. Such realism was the rule of art education at the time, and following rules in the academy meant success. But Picasso was dubious of the rules, as the unfinished quality of this and other drawings suggests. The portrait of Picasso’s father fades into outlines of shoulders and torso; in a self-portrait from 1901, the face similarly centers the drawing’s energy, with the body rendered in flat lines and streaks of color.
According to art instruction standards, a drawing was meant to present a full image, complete and mimetic to the scene. In many of these early drawings, Picasso reminds us that we are not looking at a mirror of reality, but rather an imitation of the world created by the hand of the artist.
This sense of imitation is present in other works. “Woman with a Pitcher” is drawn from a 19th-century photograph by G. Lekegian entitled “Woman with Ballas, Egypt.” Like his portraits, the drawing emphasizes the head of the subject, which is drawn with rich detail and tones, while the body and hands fade into quick, flat lines. The catalog notes, “[W]hat is remarkable about this drawing and others that can be associated with specific photographs done around the same time is how they differ from the original rather than how close they are to the photographic source.” But this is not remarkable, for each drawing attempts a new creation as much as it borrows from the photograph itself. Picasso’s drawing turns the photograph into its own artistic creation, which he then renders though his own unique drawing. The reality of a woman captured in a photograph, which was then imitated in a Picasso drawing, point to the layers of images and history behind every act of originality.
Through the displayed works and an extensive catalog archive of drawings, “Reinventing Tradition” aims to situate Picasso’s drawings within the long tradition of great artists that preceded him. “Acrobat in Blue” presents a hauntingly beautiful portrait of a young man rendered in stern lines and watery colors that lie flat against the cardboard surface. The acrobat’s languid features evoke a contemplative moment as the he looks off into the distance (a common technique for the artist). Picasso captures this portrait with little shading or precision of detail, instead using thick black lines that define the contours of the acrobat’s body against the brown background. The catalog tells us that the simplicity and colors of the image “brings to mind the work of 15th-century masters” such as Fra Angelico’s frescoes. This claim intrigued me, for it suggested that when we look at Acrobat in Blue, we see more than Picasso, more than simply his lines and colors. We see instead a history of such lines and colors, with “Acrobat in Blue” a remix of earlier techniques.
In this art history exercise, I started to wonder how much of Picasso we see in these drawings. Where do we find Picasso amidst drawings that recreate a plaster copy of a marble sculpture? In works made from earlier photographs? In “Mother and Child and Study of Hands,” which recalls with astute certainty a drawing by Ingres?
| "Mother and Child and Study of Hands" (1904)
These early drawings show us an artistic vision in formation. We see the lines and colors that would define so much of Picasso’s work from the 1930s onward. The pleasure of these drawings rests in seeing Picasso becoming Picasso. But the drawings also question a notion of Picasso’s uniqueness. I started to consider his Cubist paintings and large abstract murals, such as “Guernica,” as less dramatically revolutionary than they might have seemed. If we agree that Picasso was “reinventing tradition” in these early drawings, he did so through a number of borrowings and imitations. Imitation breeds creativity, which in turn breeds imitation: this is the cycle that Picasso’s drawings suggest, a kind of visual theft that lies at the heart of so much creativity.
| "Standing Nude" (1910)
Lacking any real leads, the Paris police turned to the bohemian enclaves of radical modern artists and anarchists of Montmartre. When Honoré Joseph Gére Pieret, a Belgian immigrant, confessed to the police that he had stolen several statuettes from the Louvre (not such a difficult task at the time, as it turns out), his associations led to Picasso. Pieret was close friends with Guillaume Apollinaire, the poet, critic, and avid promoter of Cubism, and had sold Picasso two Iberian Roman era statuettes he had take from the Louvre back in 1907.
The police arrested Apollinaire and Picasso, both foreigners and, more threatening, both well-known advocates of modern art’s revolutionary power. Apollinaire often proclaimed, “in art, one has to kill one’s father,” and had signed a petition in support of burning down the Louvre. Picasso himself had advocated against museums as “petty and ridiculous things.” While such words were fine as provocations of young artists and poets in the cafes of Montmartre, they were more threatening in those hot, autumn days when all of Paris and much of Europe was searching for “Mona Lisa.” In court, Picasso claimed his innocence. He said he had no idea the statuettes he owned were stolen from the Louvre. Neither Picasso nor Apollinaire were ever tried for the theft of “Mona Lisa.” Da Vinci’s painting would emerge two years later in a hotel room in Florence, Italy.
In Vanishing Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa, R. A. Scotti questions Picasso’s ignorance of the stolen art he bought from Pieret. She writes that Picasso
had visited the Louvre exhibit several times, and he had probably heard the flamboyant Belgian boast of his light fingered activities. At the very least, Picasso knew the statues he had bought…belonged to the museum. At worst, he may have commissioned their theft, ordering two specific figures from the exhibit, describing exactly which pieces he wanted to use in his new painting.
The new painting was “Les Demoiselle d’Avignon.” Small studies for this work are on display at the Frick. “Yellow Nude (Study for Les Demoiselle d’Avignon)” renders a heaviness of line and color, red crosshatching giving texture to the body.
| “Yellow Nude (Study for Les Demoiselle
Picasso borrowed more than ears to invent Cubism, but that’s not really the point. Or perhaps it is. I came away from his drawings thinking they are a kind of palimpsest through which we can see the outlines and shapes of past aesthetics, from Roman figures or African masks, to Greek sculptures and French paintings. To look at Picasso’s drawings is to better understand his paintings as something greater than Picasso, an artistic vision based on imitation and purloined art. If we look beyond the artist, we might actually see his art and access his creative process without the shadow and burden of Picasso’s name getting in the way. We might call what Picasso created “invention” or “reinvention,” but it is hard to look at these drawings and not have a sense that so much of what we call originality relies on a good deal of imitation and even a bit of theft. • 31 October 2011
James Polchin teaches writing at NYU and is the founder and editor of the site Writing in Public.
Images courtesy of the Frick Collection. © 2011 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.