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Drawn to line: Alexander Adams savours Picasso's responses in his drawings to artists of the past.

Picasso's Drawings 1890-1921: Reinventing Tradition

4 October-8 January 2012

Frick Collection, New York

ISBN 9780300170733 (hardback) $60

(Yale University Press)

Picasso, inveterate pillager and pasticheur of art of the past, is not represented in the Frick Collection, which is confined to pre-Modern art. It is logical to exhibit Picasso's early drawings at the Frick though. 'Reinventing Tradition' (which travels to the National Gallery of Art in Washington at the end of January) covers the period during which the artist successively trained in, broke with and, for the first time in his career, revisited the academic traditions of drawing. Carefully curated by the Frick's Susan Grace Galassi together with Picasso authority Marilyn McCully, the show includes Picasso's earliest dated drawing, Hercules (1890), and spans his student years and modernist, Blue, Rose and cubist periods, concluding at the height of his neoclassical phase, when he idolised Poussin and Ingres. Picasso is most himself when surrounded by artists of the past.

The curators' thesis is that for Picasso, drawing was a separate project valuable in itself, and not a mere proving ground for ideas for future paintings. This stands up well. Not only do we have proof in the finished-presentation portrait drawings of the 1910s of his dealers and patrons, we can also see the high quality of materials used. A number of his drawing series were never translated into other media. The final self-portraits, made in 1972, of the artist haggard in the face of death, likewise proved complete--they were too important and too intimate to be subjected to translation into paint.


Much like the harlequin protagonist of the Rose period, Picasso is a trickster. He is ambivalent about the Old Masters, part admiring, part mocking. In a bravura charcoal self-portrait of 1901 to 1902, the curators suggest, a young Picasso pits himself against Poussin. Youth on Horseback (1905-06; Fig. 1) is a charcoal sketch of a rider's back, a preparatory study for an unrealised painting. It blends Gauguin and Degas yet has a haunting simplicity and gravity that is entirely Picasso's. (He signed another drawing 'Paul Picasso' in tribute to Gauguin, betraying an almost shamanic approach to absorbing other artists' identities.) Picasso's art is so densely composted that almost any work from any period is liable to be influenced by that of many other artists, a characteristic that is part of his richness as a creator.

All of Picasso before 1922 is here: impeccable cast drawings; voguish charcoal portraits of obscure Barcelona artists; Fernande Olivier as an unlikely Earth Mother of Gosol; monumental dryads of the Demoiselles period; crystalline cubist townscapes. The cubist works in ink and charcoal interact with papiers colles of the same subjects, the lines of newspaper text equivalent to the pen scratches of ink.



The selection includes gouaches and watercolours that incorporate vigorous hatching, making them closer to drawings than to oils. This is especially evident in the Cezannesque early cubist still-lifes. A previously unexhibited ink sketch of a nude rear view demonstrates how close painting and drawing were to carving in Picasso's conceptions of figures.

On almost every wall hangs a famous drawing. Sleeping Peasants (1919; Fig. 2), a felicitous blend of Millet and Renoir, shimmers with delicate curving brushstrokes; seeing it first-hand allows one to experience the circulating hypnotic effect of the marks and the finesse of the colouration, neither of which is fully apparent in reproductions. Mother and Child and Study of Hands (1904; Fig. 3), meanwhile, is an iconic image of maternal tenderness in which Picasso clearly revels in the aesthetic of sketch-as-finished-art. Most of the show is accommodated in the Frick's lower galleries, with one cabinet on the ground floor devoted to four pastels of women from the neoclassical period, when Picasso was still in love with his new wife Olga and the sourness of later years was far absent.

The exhibition opens with a 1902 ink sketch of the artist's left hand. By coincidence, simultaneously the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, is exhibiting Theodore Gericault's final painting, of his left hand. Thus the two masters' hands are only a few blocks apart, one on the verge of greatness, the other at the point of death. Picasso would have relished such a poignant juxtaposition.

Alexander Adams is an artist and writer based in Berlin.
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Title Annotation:Picasso's Drawings 1890-1921: Reinventing Tradition
Author:Adams, Alexander
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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