How Picasso Mixed Tradition and Revolution

The Cincinnati Art Museum’s beautifully designed exhibition of landscape paintings shows the iconic artist in a new light.

Cincinnati Art Museum is building a reputation for presenting exhibitions that take unusual approaches to revisiting the work of great painters. In 2016-17, there was one for Vincent van Gogh. Now, the Spanish-born but longtime France-based Pablo Picasso is featured, as museums worldwide observe the 50th anniversary of his death, at age 91, in 1973.

“Landscape of Mougins II” (1965)

For Van Gogh: Into the Undergrowth, the museum used its own wonderful 1890 “Undergrowth with Two Figures” as a launch pad to see how he treated depictions of the forest through his career. CAM is now featuring Picasso Landscapes: Out of Bounds through October 15, the first major exhibition devoted to such work by the 20th-Century art giant best known for his blue period, cubism, portraiture (especially of women), and the landmark 1937 oil painting “Guernica,” protesting an air strike against the civilians of the Basque town by the Nazi German Luftwaffe during Spain’s civil war.

What prompted this approach? “To me, it means the museum is doing some of what it’s supposed to be doing,” says Peter Jonathan Bell, CAM’s curator of European paintings, sculpture and drawings. “People are always wringing their hands over art history being dead or that the younger generation doesn’t want to look at European Masters. But, in fact, there always are different ways to see artists who have withstood the test of time. To present that is part of our purpose.”

Overall, Out of Bounds offers nearly 45 paintings and two sculptures from 25 public and private American and European collections. The Musée Picasso in Paris has provided five artworks; Barcelona’s Picasso Museum loaned six.

That this approach works well is due to the expertise of guest curator Laurence Madeline, former curator of Musée Picasso. The show’s theme was her idea, and the American Federation of Arts organized the presentation. The exhibit first appeared at Charlotte’s Mint Museum from February 11 to May 21; Cincinnati is its only other stop.

“I’ve been working on Picasso for quite a long time now, and at some point I was thinking, Was he a painter of tradition or revolution?” Madeline says during an interview at the opening here. “I looked at landscapes in his work and realized it was proof he respected tradition. But, at the same time, landscape was a place where he made his revolution. So landscape is where you have (both) at the same time.”

The exhibition, which is in the museum’s big Western & Southern Galleries, is designed beautifully, with a variety of interesting historical and background content to catch your attention between the paintings. It begins with an oversize reproduction of his vibrantly verdant 1943 “The Vert-Galant” that’s perfect for selfies. Subsequent well-chosen “ephemera” include a film clip of landscape-changing post-war construction work in Cannes, France, where Picasso worked; a wall-mounted touchscreen of digital images of magazine spreads about him from 1949-51; and footage from his funeral. And there is much else.

“Landscape of Juan-les-Pins” (1920)

The show is especially strong at connecting Picasso’s landscapes to his biography and to France. The juxtaposition brings him alive as an artist engaging with the world around him, not just to artistic movements like cubism or to whatever or whoever was in the studio.

For instance, purely as an oil painting, “Snow Landscape” from 1924-25 doesn’t stand out compared to his more famous work. It’s drained of color, with its twisted tree limbs and snow-lined branches appearing vulnerable to the grayness encroaching from behind. But Madeline’s research has come up with a front-page newspaper article (reproduced as wall text) from February 29, 1924, detailing “the picturesque aspects” of a rare Paris snowfall. One gets a vision of Picasso, just reaching middle age, so impressed and excited by this unusual weather event that it inspires him to paint about it. You sense his creative impulses at work.

There are also paintings that stand out on both the merits of their vivid pictorial elements and gain from Madeline’s determination to show us that his landscapes could reflect his interaction with the modern world. One is “View of Cannes at Dusk” from 1960. Picasso had moved to Cannes, on France’s Mediterranean coast, in 1955. The country of France—especially the tourist-oriented Cote d’Azur—was in busy recovery from the ravages of World War II, and the changes in the landscape were striking. Picasso faced up to that in this oil painting.

The artist’s viewpoint of Cannes is from his balcony, where he seems at first to be taking in a lovely world of nature, beginning with the plant branches sprouting outward from what could be a vase behind the railing. But out amidst the landscape’s greenery is a veritable monster: a tall crane hovering over everything. Change is coming.

“Mediterranean Village” (1937)

In “Landscape of Mougins II,” a horizontal near-panorama of that village from 1965, a vertical tower signifies the narrowing—the crowding—of living quarters amid change, while the green surroundings and visible smaller and presumably older homes adjacent homes suggest pleasant space. There are paintings that have a Matisse-like colorful simplicity or a Henry Rousseau-like luxuriant thickness of greenery, and these are pleasurable for their straightforward pictorial strengths without any overlay of sociological interpretation: 1908’s “La Rue-des-Boise (Landscape),” 1920’s “Landscape of Juan-les-Pins,” and 1937’s totally charming “Mediterranean Village,” for example.

During this anniversary observance, there has been much discussion nationally of Picasso’s brutality toward the women in his life. Due to the narrow focus of Out of Bounds, one wouldn’t expect this show to address that hot topic, but it does—only briefly, yet its words pack a punch. A panel accompanying the Figure & Landscape section of the exhibit contains this passage: “Despite their active engagement with the history and future of landscape, Picasso’s many representations of nude women posing outdoors or in the interior landscape of the studio merit the scrutiny of our twenty-first-century gaze. The paintings in this section partake of the inherent misogyny of this art historical motif and the false equivalency it creates between femininity and fecundity. Such concerns cannot be easily dismissed, especially in the oeuvre of an artist whose treatment of his female models and partners in life has justly been the focus of recent critical analysis.”

Those are remarkably strong, critical words for an artist CAM is featuring because it likes his work, especially given that the paintings in this section, like Picasso’s 1963 “Le peintre et son modele dans un paysage,” are abstracted to the point of seeming comic-book-like. But the point is important to include, says curator Bell, who calls the topic of Picasso’s sexism “the elephant in the room.” “It’s inevitable sometimes that biography takes central stage, especially with artists like Picasso, who were so careful in crafting the way they are presented to the world,” he says. “It’s well documented that he treated some of the people closest to him—his family, his lovers—in horribly abusive ways. I think we’re prepared for that to be a conversation this exhibition can help start, and we should welcome that because it’s part of history and we’re interested in presenting art and art history.”

Bell says he thinks most people who engage with the exhibition and who want to have conversations about what the artist’s biography means to his legacy and his art “can hold in their minds at the same time the significance of the artwork alongside the complexity and really base nature sometimes of the human behind it.”

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