Picasso’s Sculpture Show at MOMA – The Artist’s Giant Playpen

Sandra Bertrand


Pablo Picasso was, above all, a free spirit.  Trained as a painter, he demonstrated in his sculpture a total disregard for tradition in everything he touched.  This is nowhere more evident than in the Museum of Modern Art’s glorious and grandiose exhibit, Picasso Sculpture. Over six decades, everything in his three-dimensional imagination—from humans and animals to the most eclectic of inanimate objects—was fair game.  The world was his playground.


And what a playground it is. Occupying the entire fourth floor galleries, the exhibit allows the spectator to experience many enthralling works in the round, returning to re-examine, question, and wonder at the prolific, unstoppable genius of the man.   A handy takeaway pamphlet with sketches and accompanying descriptions eliminates the need for wall notes.  This reinvention of gallery space to accommodate approximately 140 sculptures is the handiwork of curators Ann Temkin and Anne Umland, with the assistance of Virginie Perdrisot, Curator of Sculptures and Ceramics at the Musee National Picasso in Paris. It’s not surprising, due to the sheer magnitude of his creative output on record—13,500 paintings, 100,000 prints and engravings, and 34,000 illustrations—that his sculpture periods were episodic.  He moved from one studio to the next, employing new tools, materials and processes as he went, and the galleries reflect those passages.


The initial gallery focuses on the artist’s earliest works, including his first sculpture, Seated Woman, created in Barcelona when he was only 20.  A standout in this collection is Head of a Woman (Fernande), based on his then paramour Fernande Olivier.  This bronze is so arresting with its fractured and cubistic plant-like planes, it is worth a trip to the 5th floor to see those paintings that reflect this period of creative ferment.  One in particular, Girl with a Mandolin (1910) bears a strong similarity in style. It’s worth noting that the aforementioned bronze sculpture once belonged to photographer Alfred Stieglitz and was part of the legendary 1913 Armory Show in New York.  The Jester, which will be familiar to many viewers, began as a portrait of his friend, the poet Max Jacob.  His love for African and Oceanic sculpture led Picasso to wood carving, evident in an unfinished standing Figure carved from an old oak beam. 


If solid form sculpture was the general rule, the second gallery makes it clear that Picasso was quick to upend that thinking in the Cubist Years of 1912-1915.  Through cutting, folding and threading, his cardboard Guitar is seen here.  His playfulness is in full force and it’s proven in the number of onlookers who gravitate to this wall.  More importantly, it demonstrates his use of negative space through its open structure.  Even more surprising is the collection of six versions of Glass of Absinthe.  Each is decorated in a slightly different way, and each of the actual absinthe spoons differ. They seem to have been spontaneously created in a moment of childish inebriation, yet it’s obvious he had the infinite patience in this instance to rework his idea.


By the end of the 1920s Picasso was commissioned to create a tomb monument of his close friend and supporter, Guillaume Apollinaire.  None of the works were accepted by the memorial committee and in truth, none shown here bear resemblance to any academic portrayal of the poet.    Unfortunately, Apollinaire was not around to applaud the iconoclastic and shocking entries and argue for their inclusion, which one suspects he would have. 



Consider the artist’s proposals: diagrammatic wire constructions that Picasso’s art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler christened “drawings in space.”  Iron wire and sheet metal never looked more graceful, as in the three examples on display.  The whimsy many would later attribute to sculptor Alexander Calder comes to mind on close inspection.  Among his ideas for the committee and a particular favorite of this reviewer is Woman in the Garden.  Salvaged metal elements are welded together and finalized with a coating of white paint.  Blossoms jut forth from her grasp and the strands of her hair appear to take flight.  A weightless iron muse may sound like a contradictory oxymoron but not to this sculptor.


In the early 1930s Picasso purchased the Chateau de Boisgeloup, 45 miles from Paris.  The space now existed for more massive creations, but his first sculptures were small whittled wood figures, so delicate one expects them to topple over at the first breath.  However, his signature works in the new studio were white plaster entities, bordering on abstraction with their noses, mouths and eyes doubling as male and female sexual organs.  Not all these constructions reflect this obsession.  Some smaller female bathers and birds are also seen.  This room also serves up for the hungry eye a series of inventive drawings he referred to as An Anatomy.  After a separation agreement with his wife, Olga Ruiz-Picasso forced his exile from Boisgeloup, he managed in 1937 to extricate five resident sculptures to accompany his famed mural Guernica for exhibition at the World’s Fair in Paris. 


Among the very few artists that remained in Paris during the Nazi occupation, he managed to have his bronze sculptures transported secretly to and from the foundry by night.  (Bronze casting was prohibited as precious metal was reserved for wartime production.)  A touching example of the artist’s solemn approach to sculpture at such a time is Man with a Lamb.  Modeled in clay in 1943, the museum notes attest to its fragility:  “…this sculpture was made in one day, frantically assembled on an armature that was too weak for the quantities of clay Picasso piled upon it.”   Still, it attests to the months of sketches and reflection that preceded it. It’s a powerful juxtaposition of a hardened male figure holding an animal that signified the ultimate in submission.  Did Picasso mean to portray innocence to the slaughter or a protective embrace against the onslaught of war?  Whatever its significance to its creator, it speaks volumes.



An added treat for visitors is an adjacent gallery with 25 photographs, expertly taken by Brassai.  Commissioned by the surrealist publication, Minotaure, to photograph Picasso’s works, he was the most trusted photographer in the artist’s circle. 


After the liberation in 1944, Picasso headed for the French Riviera and the sun and spiritual renewal that promised.  He visited the ceramics workshop of George and Suzanne Ramie in the town of Vallauris, and it was there he discovered with an almost innocent delight not only the ancient art of ceramic vessels and their surface effects, but how to push this art to its limits.  The breasts and belly of Pregnant Woman incorporate shards in a totally new way.  Assemblages in Picasso’s hands took on a whole new meaning.


One flowery bouquet, for instance, sports an old watering can in its construction.  One of the early examples of his transforming technique at work from the earlier wars is Bull’s Head, a spontaneous pairing of a leather bicycle seat and a pair of metal handlebars, later cast in bronze.  There are too many fanciful transformations to mention here, but suffice it to say there’s enough to hold the interest of the youngest child in the crowd. Vallauris must have worked its magic on Picasso as he surely works his on us:  The little owl, an earthenware delight in its simplicity; a crane which stands on tiptoe with the agility of a ballet dancer; and the biggest crowd-pleaser of all, Baboon and Young (1951) with a head formed by his own son’s toy car.


It was also in Vallauris that he created more than 120 sheet metal sculptures.  By cutting and folding paper or cardboard, he designed his works to be fabricated in sheet metal at a 1:1 scale.  Several are profiles of Jacqueline, his last wife.  But it’s not necessary to have perused the proliferation of biographies, reviews, and essays on the artist and his muses to appreciate the richness of this show.  The playground is simply there, for sheer enjoyment and maybe more than a little awe.


A famous quote of Picasso’s:  “Painting is a blind man’s profession.  He paints not what he sees, but what he feels, what he tells himself about what he has seen.”  He leaves the gift of sight up to us and what we choose to do with it.



(This exhibit runs through February 7th, 2016 at MOMA, 11 West 53 Street, New York, NY 10019-5497).


Author Bio:

Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief art critic.

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