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by Jack Mottram, a freelance writer based in Glasgow · About · Contact · Feed

Picasso in Edinburgh

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This twinned pair of ex­hib­i­tions attempt to side-step the di­f­fi­culty, if not im­pos­s­ib­il­ity, of surveying Picasso’s long and prolific career by re­strict­ing their focus to ceramics and works on paper.

Un­for­tu­n­ately, Picasso: Fired With Passion at the National Museum is not a success. The show centres the artist’s time at Vallauris in the South of France, when Picasso devoted himself to ceramics. It also attempts, through timelines, in­form­a­tion panels, collected ephemera and a smat­ter­ing of paintings, drawings and posters, to offer insight into Picasso’s wider practice, and his famously tu­mul­tu­ous private life. The result is an odd admixture of wooly gen­er­al­it­ies - Picasso was fond of the ladies, invented Cubism, was rather upset by the bom­bard­ment of Guernica - and a studied focus, that, mis­lead­ingly, takes it as a given that Picasso’s ceramic work is on a par with his wider practice. Sure, there are moments of wit, as in Mains au Poisson, a plate which shows two matte black hands crushing the life out of a shiny, slippery fish, and fine pieces, too - the vase from 1950 that opens the show is decorated with glor­i­ously kinetic classical figures. But, given the choice between endless it­er­a­tions of still lives on plates and the work that lines the walls, from simple linocut ex­hib­i­tion posters to a print like The Ban­der­illes, which captures the tense elegance of a bullfight in full flow, there is no contest - the pots and plates are un­den­i­ably lesser works.

In this respect, Fired With Passion is best seen as an appetiser for Picasso On Paper, inspiring a desire to see more posters, prints and drawings.

And, thank­fully, the Dean Gallery offering doesn’t dis­ap­point, offering 120 works, from a pastel piece made when Picasso was still in his teens to an ink drawing made in 1971, two years before his death.

In contrast to the heavy-handed in­ter­ven­tions at the National Museum, the Dean show offers loose groupings and in­form­at­ive, but never didactic notes, quietly hinting that Picasso, perhaps more than any other artist, resists con­ven­tion­al curation. His restless ex­per­i­ment­a­tion makes a nonsense of even simple chro­no­lo­gic­al ordering. Group of Female Nudes, a clas­sic­ally-inspired pastel from 1921 might suggest that Picasso’s sudden volte face in 1914, when he sought to distance himself from Cubism, inspired a line of realistic work. But on the wall opposite are prints that confuse and combine styles, as if, for all that Picasso’s work is divided into periods - the Blue and the Rose, the various modes of Cubism, the neo­clas­sic­al works and near-Sur­real­ist - he saw these movements, once conceived, as modes to be layered, choices to be made.

In Faun Unveiling a Sleeping Woman, Picasso plays with the pos­s­ib­il­it­ies. The creature is drawn in a dis­t­inc­tly classical style, the object of its desire is sketched out in a few hasty lines. Given Picasso’s constant present­a­tion of dualities - the artist and his model, the bull and the horse - it is hard to resist reading the work as a piece of concise auto­bi­o­graphy and self-criticism, with Picasso the faun, his gaze drawn, as always, to a woman, but also to his work itself, at once out of time and out of place, but within a tradition.

A series of eleven litho­graphs, each titled The Bull, show a similar urge to slip free of the con­straints of genre. The first print is painterly, re­p­res­ent­at­ive, the third sees fluid washes replaced with finicky detail. Next comes a marking out of shapes, like a diagram of butcher’s cuts. The final image is a set of eco­n­om­ic­al lines that emphasise the bull’s bulk, its huge body sup­port­ing the tiny horned circle of its head, and call to mind the powerful economy of the pre­his­t­or­ic cave paintings found near the artist’s birth­place at Málaga.

The rest of the ex­hib­i­tion offers shock upon shock, as Picasso flits between modes and essays new tech­n­iques. There is the bawdy car­toon­ing of Dreams And Lies Of Franco, which both lampoons the General, depicted as a sort of priapic vegetable, and condemns him with silently screaming heads. By way of contrast, Minot­aur­o­mach­ie offers an un­read­able icon­o­graphy of a mythic creature, candle-bearing girl and wounded horse. Picasso, never short on ego, stands up to the Old Masters, reworking Cranach the Younger and borrowing from Rembrandt. Naive, simple portraits - including Paloma and Claude, Vallauris, daubed in haste with a fingertip - are followed by in­tel­lec­tu­al exercises, like the hinting ar­range­ment of shapes in the papiers collés developed with George Braque on the eve of the First War. Early, precise works like The Frugal Meal display the dismal themes of Blue Period paintings, but also hint at the repeated divisions of the most recent, in which impotent homunculi leer at vo­lup­tu­ous, fecund women.

This is a show to set the pulse racing, then, a com­pre­hen­s­ive survey of work by an endlessly inventive artist whose twists and turns are little short of alarming. By the end of it, the dis­ap­point­ments of its sister show at the National Museum are forgotten, and faith in Picasso is restored.

This review was first published in The Herald on July 13th, 2007.