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Cube Roots

The BMA Explores the Picasso: The Early Years

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 8/29/2001

Picasso: Portrait and Figure

Pablo Picasso

theBaltimore Museum of Art through Oct. 28

At the risk of calling Etta and Claribel Cone squares, these Victorian-bred sisters never really cared for Pablo Picasso's adventures in cubism. It's not that they didn't love Picasso's art; they amassed 113 paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, and illustrated books by him that now belong to the Baltimore Museum of Art's Cone Collection. It's just that they preferred his more classical takes on the human figure to his more familiar distortions of same.

The Cones' relatively tame taste in modernism comes across in the BMA's Picasso: Portrait and Figure, the second of three mini-shows devoted to the artist in the reopened Cone Wing. This exhibit of about 30 drawings and prints (and a single sculpture) mostly presents work done by Picasso between 1904 and 1906. The sisters started acquiring Picassos around this time; while Etta Cone continued to do so until her death in 1949, tellingly, she generally bought work from this early period.

Portrait and Figure offers a quick-sketch sense of what Picasso's life as a young man was like. To see the man himself, check the reed pen and ink drawing "Self Portrait (Head of a Young Man)" (1906), in which the artist's simplified facial lines and blackened eye sockets give his head a masklike appearance, suggesting the influence that African masks were starting to have on his work. For a glimpse at his circle of friends, look at the opaque watercolor of "Leo Stein" (1906), who, along with his sister, Gertrude, was a mutual friend of the Cones and Picasso; and the print "Fernande Olivier" (1906), featuring Picasso's then-mistress, whose broad face and wide eyes confront us in so much of his early output.

These figures in his life also offer insights into his approaches to figuration. Consider the pen-and-ink drawing "Boy With Pipe" (1905), which depicts a boy who used to hang around the artist's studio and which served as the basis for a later painting (part of a private collection in New York). Picasso apparently considered and reconsidered how to draw the boy--the main image of the seated subject is accompanied by two little sketches in which the artist tries out different poses. It'd be nice if the exhibit had more such drawing-as-laboratory examples, but this one gives a fine sense of Picasso's explorations.

What makes the strongest impression in this exhibit is the extent to which classicism helped shape Picasso's lines in the first decade of the 20th century. (He went through another neoclassical phase in the '20s.) In the brush, watercolor, and Conté crayon "Study for Boy Leading a Horse" (1906)-- related to a painting in New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)--the modeling is so solid that you can imagine such the boy and horse as an equine monument in some classical forum. Their blocky bodies also recall the proto-cubistic approach to figuration that Paul Cézanne brought to the modern-art scene in the late 19th century.

A similarly statuelike serenity can be seen in the pen-and-ink drawing "Woman Carrying Basket" (1906) and the chalk drawing "Woman Carrying a Jar" (1906), both featuring women so firmly placed they seem suitable to serve as caryatids, the woman-shaped columns sometimes used to support a Greek temple roof. But these figures are directly based on the sort of peasant women well known to the Spanish-born artist.

And the Spanish earth itself seems to factor into the brush and opaque watercolor and charcoal "Two Nudes" (1906), which served as a study for a painting now in MoMA's collection. The statuesque women here possess chunky earth-goddess-appropriate bodies, and the entire watercolor utilizes earth-toned shades guaranteed to put you in a rustic frame of mind.

Picasso made a natural connection between such salt-of-the-earth peasant types and the eternal values associated with classical sculpture. At the same time, though, he was exploring those African masks and other so-called "primitive" and preclassical art. It was this pursuit that led to his revolutionary breakthroughs in cubism in the years just after the period surveyed in the BMA show.

Regrettably, the exhibit includes only one example of this crucial development, but it's a revelation. The watercolor "Study for Nude With Drapery (Dance With Veils)" (1907) is related to two other paintings from that same year: one of the same name that's now in Leningrad's Hermitage and "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" in MoMA. The female nude in this watercolor, with her masklike face, is defined by sharply slashing diagonal lines that are flush with similar lines in the background. She looks like she's being stretched, even ripped apart; she also seems like she's merging with her surroundings. It was quite a figurative workout by the standards of 1907, and it's still exciting in 2001.

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