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Picasso on paper is no less than the whole Picasso. If all his works except those made on or with paper disappeared, what remained would still prove Picasso the most inventive, original, protean artist of the 20th century. The Royal Academy’s Picasso and Paper is just such an enthralling shadow retrospective.
Unlike a painting exhibition, a paper show can unite revelatory studies relating to every major Picasso work, including the never-loaned “Demoiselles d’Avignon” and “Guernica”. Here gripping drawings and gouaches of the wrenching horse, twisted, deformed and punctured, distil the horror of “Guernica”. “Femmes à leur toilette”, a five-metre collage of bright wallpaper samples reworked into a grotesque interior with repeated contorted figures of Dora Maar, is a bizarrely ornamental, mixed-media take on the “Weeping Woman” paintings. Such lesser-known pieces invite a first, compelling reading of the show through the prism of greatest hits, defamiliarised.
But this free-spirited, wildly unusual display of works monumental and ephemeral offers so much more. On the one hand are countless small marvels of immediate, intimate drawings. A 1918 “Self-portrait” manipulates strong fluid lines into casual, expressive brilliance, the pencil barely seeming to rise from the paper. A hard, symmetrical rendering of Picasso’s wife, “Olga in a hat with feather”, balances virtuosity and dislike. You could spend a day engrossed in such formal yet psychological battles.
On the other hand, the show gains pace and diversity because it is unexpectedly ablaze with colour, and scattered with quixotic sculptures. A two-metre slotted papier-mâché assemblage is a robotic, skyscraper-like costume for the anarchic first world war ballet Parade. Napkins are scorched and torn in occupied Paris in 1943 into “Skull” and “Mask”.
From the 1960s, an absurdist cut and folded cardboard cast — featuring an obese “Woman Bathing” and a clumsy “Seated Man Leaning on His Elbow” — resemble laconic pop sculptures. In fact they parody figures from Manet’s “Déjeuner sur l’herbe”, and Picasso shuffled them around while composing his painterly pastiches of that composition, also on show. Thus, with a wonderfully light touch, curators Ann Dumas and William Robinson pinpoint pieces that illuminate the last century’s history, as well as Picasso’s.
Works on paper by any great artist unravel germs of thought and creative process, but Picasso is a special case for two reasons. First, he is modernism’s supreme draughtsman, so masterpieces on paper define his every epoch. Second, the revolution of cubism, pivot of his career, has unique roots in the manipulation of paper as something beyond a surface — a development flinging influence right up to today.
Picasso’s first print — executed on the used copper plate of another artist because he could not afford his own — is the 1904 etching of emaciated, elongated bodies suggesting the very texture of hunger, in chalky cold light, “The Frugal Meal”: a Blue Period icon. The Rose Period’s emblem is the large, almost transparent pale pink “The Harem”: women washing and combing their hair, executed in pencil and extremely thin washes, hovering between painting and drawing.
“Head of a Woman” (1921), an outstanding pastel blending layers and varieties of strokes, white highlights, deeper terracottas and luminous blue ground, epitomises Picasso the serene neoclassicist. By contrast, each mark in the spiky ink, gouache and coloured chalk “Seated Woman” (1938), depicting Dora Maar, is scratchy, tense, combative.
Each of these pieces points to or develops from cubism, for which Picasso especially used papier collé — pasted paper — to experiment with deconstructing form in images held between two and three dimensions. The guitar, a cubist trademark, is here in five works from 1911-14: a makeshift cardboard, pasted paper and string representational sculpture; an abstracted collage of cut Ingres paper, wallpaper, newspaper, cardboard and wire; a seven-part set of pure cut-out geometric abstractions; a stylised pen and ink drawing; and the Paris Musée Picasso’s seminal ochre-grey architectonic painting of geometric shapes in columnar rhythm “Man with a Guitar”.
“The purpose of the pasted paper was to show that different materials could enter into the composition to become, in the painting, a reality in competition with nature,” Picasso explained. “We sought to rid ourselves of the trompe l’oeil in order to find the ‘trompe l’esprit’.”
Picasso spent a lifetime exploring those implications, recasting representation as invention. It was a highly conceptual undertaking, and every landmark piece along the way has as hinterland a building site of sketches, drawings and notebooks, which are gloriously foregrounded here.
Those for “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, the great cubist precursor, in pen, pencil, gouache and chalk, trace the gradual abandonment of narrative logic, elimination of male figures, anchoring of positions, sculptural references and introduction of hatched faces and opaque eyes, culminating in the only full preparatory composition on paper, Philadelphia’s watercolour “Five Nudes”. Throughout, as Picasso’s friend Pierre Daix described, pictorial violence “wonderfully provokes the violence of the graphic”.
There follow scores of sketches of the head of Picasso’s lover Fernande as so many faceted planes, fusing different viewpoints, evolving a geometric approach, displayed alongside the key cubist sculpture “Head of a Woman (Fernande)” (1909). Decades later, the artist juggles the features of his new young muse, Marie-Thérèse, in five years of drawings made around the monumental bronze “Head of a Woman” (1931-32), where nose and forehead, hair and back of the skull, play exchangeable parts, the profile altering as you circle the piece — at once sensual and demonic in its dissecting, abstracting energy.
The line between beauty and monstrosity, distortion and the illusion of a pictorial world, lies at the heart of Picasso. This show pays terrific homage to that tightrope act, which kept figurative painting alive for the first half of the last century. But it also presents, through emphasis on paper, a less heroic, more questioning, improvisatory Picasso than usual: an artist as engaged with process as with finished statement — a Picasso for now.
This is most moving in the final rooms, The Last Studio, where a flow of spontaneous images seems to immerse us in the defiance, fear yet joy of creation of the elderly artist. A cut and folded paper sculpture abbreviating the striking angular features of his second wife Jacqueline (“Head of a Woman”) stands alongside magnificently textured, smoky prints of an impotent Degas — alter ego for Picasso — at a brothel (“Suite 156”) and a black and white crayon “Self-portrait”, aged 91, as a stony skull pierced by sharp indentations, with terrified eyes, zippered mouth — abstracted yet with the scribbled insouciance of children’s drawings.
Picasso, wrote his early biographer Roland Penrose, “draws as he thinks and as he lives. The whole drama of love, life and the inevitability of death are present.”
All images © Succession Picasso/DACS 2019
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