Review: Picasso Black and White

Modern master, Pablo Picasso, is often credited with starting Cubism, an early 20th-century avant-garde movement that abstracted painting and other mediums by cutting and pasting varied perspectives. Picasso’s most famous works show him at the peak of this skill. They all appear later in his career by which point he had already become adept at constructing disjointed faces and nudes.

The Guggenheim Museum’s Picasso Black and White strips down the sophisticated Cubist we understand as Picasso. Composed of drawings, sculptures, and paintings of monochromatic character, the Guggenheim exhibition brings us back to the process and progression of this movement throughout Picasso’s work. Where most exhibitions group Picasso’s work into the different stages of their development, the Guggenheim places pieces in a mostly chronological order, allowing the appearance and disappearance of various influences in Picasso’s life.

The opening piece, for example, Woman Ironing, was constructed around Picasso’s Blue Period in the early 1900s and is an intimate and sentimental piece that shows just the beginnings of abstraction. As the exhibition continues, Picasso’s struggle with craft and perspective becomes clearer. At some points, most notably in his portraits of his wife, Olga Khokhlova, there is an evident and surprisingly classical feel to his works. In Seated Nude, Olga sits undistorted in a chair with a clearly constructed face, serious and strong. In other pieces scattered throughout the exhibit, squares, rectangles, and clear angles make their debut. And as Picasso’s love affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter develops, softer ovals and sweeping brush strokes characterize his disjointed portraits of her. His use and development of the different angles of her face as in Marie Thérèse, Face and Profile, underscore his progressions.

The first half of the exhibition is where we see Picasso the person, before he was an artist. The struggle with his own brilliance, the tenderness in his portraits, and the development of his craft all show a much more intimate Picasso than viewers are used to. The cyclical nature of the Guggenheim exhibit perfectly showcases these works. Surveying the collection and each level of his technique, glimpses of Picasso the modern master and painter inform each level above.

The second half of the exhibit shows Picasso’s increasing deftness and growing confidence with black and white. Though the earlier pieces often had touches of sepia, yellow, and pink, his larger canvases throughout the second half have only shades of black and white. The complication of these canvases works well in the tame palate of colors – varied angles and perspectives are all given equal weight as a device.

Picasso never had a “black and white” period. These paintings only represent the two poles scattered throughout the various movements of his art. His return and re-return to black and white exemplifies a principle Picasso held dear. As he has stated and as is often repeated in the audio tour of the exhibit: “The fact that in one of my paintings there is a certain spot of red isn’t the essential part of the painting.” His willingness to experiment later led to his famous mastery of alternate perspectives, and accordingly, Picasso’s foray into black and white  exemplifies that process.

The Picasso “Black and White” exhibit is up until Jan. 23 at the Guggenheim Museum.