First published on 14 Mar 2012. Updated on 14 Mar 2012.
If you’ve ever looked at a Picasso work and thought , ‘That looks like Ken Done painted it’ or just ‘WTF?’ then the Art Gallery of NSW’s once-in-a-lifetime Picasso exhibition might just turn you around.
But first: three things you need to know:
First: the guy really could paint. He was classically trained from the age of 13, but painting stuff that looked like stuff bored him witless. Instead he co-invented cubism and collage and led the charge into modern art throughout the 20th century. He worked in every medium from collage to stage design, produced up to three artworks a day until he was 91 and became enormously rich and widely revered. Would we love Picasso as much if he couldn’t paint like Raphael? It’s a fun point to ponder as you wander through seven rooms worth of work.
Secondly: Picasso’s art was a diary of his life. His art was the way he worked things out and exorcised his demons. So the exhibition is also a diary of sorts, the way Eminem songs chronicle his ups and downs with his wife and kid, or David Sedaris’s essays reflect growing up gay or giving up smoking.
An example: When Picasso was 21 or so, his best friend killed himself over a girl. And so began the badly shaken Picasso’s Blue period: for four years afterwards (and more), he painted melancholy portraits of the poor, the blind, the suffering – all in shades of blue and grey.
Fast forward to 1904 and he's fallen for a model with a fondness for circuses. Thus began his Rose period – all harlequins and dancers and clowns. Rose-coloured glasses, get it?
Each of the eight women who shaped and dominated his life inspired new forms of art as he fell in and out of love, painting lush, poetic odes and poisonous character assassinations. The horrors of war brought monumental anti-war works, and his twilight years brought neo-expressionism (as always, way ahead of his time).
Thirdly: Picasso was primarily a figurist – he never lost interest in human figures (throwing in a flower, minotaur or goat only occasionally). But he always looked for new and edgier ways to express the subject’s personality – and his reaction to their personality. Look hard enough and you’ll find a little conversation starts up between yourself and the old boy.
Picasso: Her eye is trained on you constantly – it’s a red eye, like a camera – she was always pointing that camera at me…
You: Is that an apple in her cheek?
Picasso: Yes, she was a temptress… now I’ll just paint this yellow thing that looks like a lemon inside the apple… because she could be bitter too…
The dialogue can keep you amused for hours – and that, now doubt, is exactly how Pablo would have wanted it.
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