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Art & Museums

Barnes exhibit shows it can be easy to overthink Picasso

| Saturday, April 9, 2016, 8:09 p.m.

In 1920, Pablo Picasso painted what looks almost like a trompe l'oeil image of a wall in his studio, or perhaps in his imaginary ideal museum, full of Picassos arranged in the densely packed salon style of an earlier age.

There are figurative renderings of hands and a woman's face, and two clearly modeled people who seem to be slow-dancing on a beach. But interspersed with these relatively realistically rendered images are cubist still lifes, some of them set against inky black backgrounds, and all of them painted in the flat, overlapping planar style that Picasso had pursued earlier in his career.

The painting, dubbed simply “Studies,” sets up the basic theme of an exhibition at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, “Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation, and Change.” And rather like the exhibition itself, it suggests a dichotomy of aesthetics — figurative and classical vs. cubist and abstract — that is confused and misleading.

The exhibition is one of myriad small to midsize shows that nibble at the edges of the Picasso juggernaut, exploring some small facet of his career in hopes of new perspectives on what remains the simple but inexplicable fact of the artist's output: It was diverse and inexhaustible and best understood in terms of aesthetic appetites and needs, rather than larger political or social categories.

No sooner do the curators introduce the dichotomy — between the avant garde Picasso of cubism and the “neo-classical” Picasso that emerged during and after World War I — then they set out to collapse it. And so the thesis of the show, announced in the catalogue essays, is: Picasso's cubism and neoclassical styles “are not antithetical; on the contrary, each informs the other, to the degree that the metamorphosis from one style to the other is so natural for the artist that occasionally they occur in the same works of art.”

And yet again, no sooner do they collapse it do they fall back on it to give the show its drama and political context. A 1915 graphite drawing of the painter's friend Max Jacob, an exquisite rendering with a faint but never tentative touch, seems to herald a “shift” in the style of the painter, who is “seemingly turning his back on innovation.”

Several theories are broached for the larger “evolution” of his art toward a figurative style: that Picasso, as a noncombatant Spanish artist working in wartime Paris, felt the need to be more conservative, more aligned to traditional French values than the supposedly “German” tendencies of the avant garde art; or that he was working through ideas inspired by Cézanne and the 19th-century academic master Ingres; or perhaps that he had rediscovered the classical inheritance during a stay in Italy in 1917.

One might say that this is a generic academic game with straw men: Setting up categories or oppositions only to knock them down, a Sisyphean perpetual motion that looks for all the world like meaningful work so long as you don't watch the tape loop too many times. But that's not fair for at least two reasons.

First, there are genuine stylistic differences between the two kinds of work Picasso was doing during this time. One of the show's best moments is the juxtaposition of clown images — a Harlequin and a Pierrot — both from 1918, one a figurative rendering of the clown holding a mask, with his white costume garishly infected with the sickly hues of Toulouse-Lautrec, the other a cubist rendering with a violin in a palette of gray. The two figures occupy the canvas in the same way, confront the view in roughly the same way and are set against two backgrounds that share generally similar geometries. But they are obviously very different works, arising from very different impulses and needs.

But the larger reason it isn't fair to fault the intellectual exercise underlying this show too sharply is more simple and sad: This is how thought happens today, and there's no real substitute for it. The Western mind can't proceed without rational categories and oppositions, yet it reflexively doubts these basic habits of thought. A slippery language of compromise allows the mind to use them while doubting them at the same time, with phrases such as “one informs the other” and both “interpenetrate.” At this point, in the late, last period of Enlightenment thinking, there really is no other way to think.

If there's anything misguided in all of this, it's the obvious realization that categories, oppositions and even definitions of artistic styles can be unstable without being meaningless. For every rule there is an exception, which doesn't, in fact, undermine the rule. Visitors to this exhibition can derive great pleasure from its riches, so long as they don't strive too much to answer the impenetrable but ultimately rather dull question announced on the wall near the entrance to the show: “How should we understand Picasso's ambivalence?”

Stand in front of the two 1918 clowns, and you won't sense any ambivalence. Rather, you immediately recognize two forceful renderings of a similar idea, in vastly different styles, with different emotional impact. That they came from the hand of the same man, at almost the same time, proves only this: that Picasso could, and for some reason needed to, express himself in a multiplicity of ways.

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