Monday, April 26, 2010


There is a new exhibit at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art that brings together into just a few rooms all of the works by Picasso that the Museum holds. It is a powerful reminder of the many faces of Picasso. There are a few things from as early as 1900 (when Picasso would have been about 18 or 19), then a few samplings of the work from the so-called Blue Period circa 1901-1904, when Picasso really begins to hit his stride as an artist. There are also a handful of pictures from the Rose Period around 1904-06, and then many more works from his fairly lengthy Cubist period - both analytic and synthetic - which continues until the end of World War I. It also includes work that shows him returning to a highly representative approach that has been called his Neo-classical period, and then on to a complex mix of neo-cubist work that incorporates some very appealing still lifes with a variety of other abstract compositions. As the MET is quick to point out, though, these works hardly capture the range of Picasso's genius. They are merely the pictures that are in the MET's possession, and since the MET got started quite late collecting Picasso and receiving donations (the source of most of the art), there are many gaps in the show.

So let's just talk about a few of the early works for now. As indicated above, there are a few from the Blue Period here, all of which are impressive works. These pictures are, on the whole, sad, lugubrious works, yet wholly unique, perhaps best represented by "The Blind Man's Meal." As Picasso himself said, with striking simplicity, regarding this painting entirely covered in an icy shade of blue: "I am painting a blind man at the table. He holds some bread in his left hand and gropes with his right hand for a jug of wine." It is that direct and by virtue of its directness, that much more powerful.

The paintings from the much lighter and more optimistic "Rose Period" are also nicely represented. One rather clever one from this time shows Picasso himself in the foreground at the Lapin Agile, a well known gathering place for drink, conversation, and sexual rendezvous. Picasso is dressed as a harlequin, as he often portrayed himself, and can be seen standing at the bar with his lover at the time, and with the proprietor of the bar in the background.

Best of all of these early works is his portrait of Gertrude Stein from 1906. As one commentator has said, Stein's body, which is in a seated position in this work, harks back to the Rose period, but the head, painted later, with its jutting angles and lopsided contours, looks ahead to cubism. Interestingly, Stein owned the work for many years and was a major booster of it, often saying it was a painting composed by a genius portraying a genius. After World War II, she wanted it to go to a museum that was worthy of this work's greatness and so chose the MET at a time when they had no modern art department at all and no Picassos. Stein's bequest would begin a Picasso collection that while continuing to fall far short of what MoMA has accumulated, remains one of the best collections of Picassos in the United States.

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