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The understated title of Acquavella gallery’s overwhelming show of drawings by Pablo Picasso belies the impressive feat behind the exhibition. Picasso: Seven Decades of Drawing was assembled as a collaboration between Acquavella and Olivier Berggruen with the help of art historian Christine Poggi over a remarkably short period of time. 

Conceived in the Summer, launched in October, the show rests lightly on two essential but invisible advantages. One, Acquavella Gallery’s long experience in the art trade and Bill Acquavella’s personal reputation and connections meant many works would be available for the show that might not be accessible to anyone else, let alone on short notice. Two, Berggruen’s great familiarity with Picasso’s work—and experience putting together half a dozen shows around the master’s oeuvre—meant there were numerous ideas already available to work with and around. 

For Berggruen, Picasso’s theatricality is a central interest. Beggruen does scholarly work on Picasso’s collaborations for the stage but he’s also interested in way Picasso creates images to tell stories. The cover of the catalogue for the show is a colorful rooster pastel drawn in March of 1938. The rooster is crowing; but, as a companion charcoal drawing from a week earlier makes clear, the crowing can be read as a dramatic cry of distress. These works might seem comical until Berggruen points out that the Coq is symbol of Picasso’s beloved France. In the gloaming of the late 1930s, Picasso used images of animals in terror to communicate his own horror at what was taking place in Europe. The two coqs were made just nine months after the artist’s monumental anti-fascist work Guernica.   

Theater as metaphor for Picasso’s artistic production seems even more apt when focusing on his drawings. The show presents one unmistakeable and unavoidable issue: Picasso’s extraordinary ability to adopt widely differing styles, not only sequentially over the course of his career but also simultaneously depending upon the story he wanted to tell or the effect he wanted to create. 

Citing his friend Yve-Alain Bois in his essay, Berggruen refers to Picasso as “a juggler of different styles, who alternated, among others, between Classicism, parody and pastiche, Cubism, and biomorphic Surrealism.” The idea of the artist as juggler—a showman or entertainer seeking to thrill the viewer with his skill and daring—combined with Picasso’s need to adapt styles to effects brings to mind the actor on stage darting off into the wings to make a quick change and re-appear in another guise.

Picasso as a mercurial actor makes it easier to absorb the wide range of work, ideas and obsessions. Berggruen says, Picasso’s “stylistic fluidity is related to different needs, different urges and different demands.”

His practice was influenced by circumstances, Berggruen points out, “how close he feels to the subject, the needs of the work.” Looking at the late drawings of nude models made when Picasso was well into his eighties, the viewer is struck by the close detail in the drawings of the models faces and genitalia contrasted with the open lines and white space of the bodies and background. These might have been the reflection of an old man’s still burning desire but it is also technically an expression of Picasso’s habit when younger of making black-and-white drawings from photographs. Here we see him importing the effect of aperture into drawing.

Picasso’s gargantuan skill, his artistic fecundity often left him with the challenge of what to make. In these drawings unfolding in different styles over a lifetime but also toggling between techniques at the same time is one of the most important impressions left by the show. 

Berggruen reminds us that we’re not seeing everything. Although the show has a wide range of types of drawings from finished pieces to intimate sketches, we don’t see some of the instances where Picasso, who could and would draw on anything handy or available was switching between styles in the same sitting. “On the same sheet of paper,” Berggruen attests from his work, “you’ll find a cubist still life and a classical ballerina.”

Although the show functions as a miniature retrospective of Picasso’s career as a draughtsman, there are some places where there more emphasis, like in the knock-out first room that displays the artist’s various approaches to cubism, and other places where Berggruen wishes he had more time and space to make connections. In the Cubism room, Berggruen was able to illustrate “constant back and forth between different techniques, between sculpture, drawing and painting.” This was important in the run-up to the seminal Desmoiselles D’Avignon. 

It was also important in Picasso’s work with Cubism and even later with Sylvette David. “You could almost take one of the drawings,” Berggruen says, “fold it and then you have the sculpture of the woman in the drawing.”

“Drawing can be anything for Picasso,” Berggruen says, “it can be a visual aid or a presentation. In the later years, it becomes a visual diary of his daily theater of the imaginary.” And that points to the one thing not in the show. There is a continuity between Picasso’s drawing and his print-making and his etchings. “I would have liked to have shown his late etchings from the 1960s.”