June 24, 2022


‘The Picasso Century’ at the NGV

By Miriam Cosic
Pablo Picasso, Figures by the sea (Figures au bord de la mer), January 12, 1931, oil on canvas, 130.0 × 195.0 cm, Musée national Picasso-Paris. © Succession Picasso/Copyright Agency, 2022. Photo: © RMN - Grand Palais - Mathieu Rabeau

Pablo Picasso, Figures by the sea (Figures au bord de la mer), January 12, 1931, oil on canvas, 130.0 × 195.0 cm, Musée national Picasso-Paris. © Succession Picasso/Copyright Agency, 2022. Photo: © RMN - Grand Palais - Mathieu Rabeau

The NGV’s exhibition offers a fascinating history of the avant-garde across the Spanish artist’s lifetime

Pablo Picasso remained remarkably prolific, as well as revolutionary, throughout his life – and he lived to a grand old age. So it’s not surprising that blockbuster exhibitions of his works are rolled out continually around the world. That might lead to internal eye-rolls every time a new one is announced if it weren’t for the immense variety of his work, in both medium and theme, the ongoing curiosity about it, and the constant innovation in Picasso research and changing attitudes toward him. The blockbusters certainly don’t blur into one over the years.

In 2006, a massive exhibition spanned Madrid’s two major museums: the Prado and the Reina Sofia, the city’s museum of modern art and the home of Picasso’s monumental anti-war protest against Spain’s civil war, Guernica. It celebrated both the 125th anniversary of his birth and the 25th anniversary of the return of Guernica to a democratic Spain, in line with the terms of Picasso’s will. It was a huge and mesmerising exhibition, and a guard had to politely throw me out when he found me still wandering around more than an hour after the press preview had closed.

Two years later, in 2008, an even grander exhibition, Picasso et les Maitres, ran over three venues in Paris – the Grand Palais, the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay. (With the works guesstimated to be worth a combined 2 billion euros, it was also reportedly the most expensive exhibition ever to be insured in French art history, at 790,000 euros, less than a fifth of the 4.5 million euro budget.) Alongside more than 200 works by Picasso were hung a mind-blowing array of works by Titian, El Greco, Delacroix, Cézanne, Goya, Rembrandt, Renoir, Manet, Velázquez, Ingres, Degas, Van Gogh and more – works that had affected Picasso profoundly.

A smaller, more recent show in Canberra in 2020, Matisse & Picasso, was almost as memorable. It compared the work of those two rivals across similar themes, and parallel and diverging developments, revealing the sexual aggression of one and the focus on feminine beauty of the other. Among the highlights were some stunning pictures by Picasso, including a few marvels that are surprisingly rarely seen despite his constant outings, and a more detailed analysis of him in the intimacy of his placement against Matisse. 

Now another mammoth exhibition, The Picasso Century, has come to the National Gallery of Victoria. It offers a new comparison of Picasso with other artists that forms a fascinating history of the avant-garde across Picasso’s lifetime. The weighty catalogue alone should find a spot in the bookcase of any art lover, particularly one who can’t come to Melbourne. Curated especially for the NGV by the Centre Pompidou and Musée Picasso in Paris, it contains not only more than 80 of his works, but more than 100 works by many of his friends and contemporaries. There are works by artists such as Georges Braque, Salvador Dalí, Alberto Giacometti, Françoise Gilot, Valentine Hugo, Marie Laurencin, Dora Maar, André Masson, Henri Matisse and Dorothea Tanning (and notice the number of women among them), as well as evidence of his close connection with towering intellectuals of his day, such as the poet Guillaume Apollinaire and the American novelist and art collector Gertrude Stein, both of whom considered Picasso a titan who changed the course of Western art history.

The exhibition proceeds both chronologically and thematically through 15 sections across many rooms, with the works hung well spaced out on minimally decorated walls, many of them plain white, giving maximum impact to each work. The show is curated by Didier Ottinger, deputy director of the Musee National d’Art Moderne (more commonly known as the Centre Pompidou, or simply “Beaubourg” to the French cognoscenti – a reference to the suburb in which it sits). To see some of these rarely shown works, including some I hadn’t seen before, was a reminder of how huge the Pompidou’s holdings are, making it quite easy to miss these excellent paintings when they are given a rare rotation out of storage.

Picasso was notoriously exploitative of women. Two of his lovers committed suicide, although two others went on to have important artistic careers of their own. But the number of works by women here is not gratuitously “woke”: each has something important to say about him and their times. One is a rarely seen group portrait by Marie Laurencin, Apollinaire and his friends (1909), which includes Gertrude Stein and Fernande Olivier, as well as Laurencin, and a relatively young Picasso seated modestly behind a central and magisterial Apollinaire.

Elsewhere, two pictures by the Russian painter Natalia Goncharova, both from the Pompidou, include a foray into primitivism that is different to Picasso’s. Unlike Picasso’s interest in African imagery, her interest in the traditional dress and work of Russian peasants was part of her pursuit of a national style. Seen here are the well-known caryatid-like figures of The Carriers (1911) and also the more rarely seen Planting Potatoes (1908–09), a striking earlier expression, as it were, of her form of expressionism; both were made before she left Russia for the hub of Paris in 1916.

Two of Picasso’s major works, not seen here, are internationally famous anti-war symbols: Guernica (1937), Picasso’s powerful protest against the gruesome 1937 bombing of the Basque country town by Nazi Germany in support of Spanish Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War; and various iterations of Picasso’s line drawing of the Dove of Peace. And yet political art doesn’t spring to mind at the first mention of Picasso, unlike his cubism, say, or his fractured women or their mauling by powerful priapic bulls.

Only the 2006 show in Madrid, where the centrepiece was Guernica (which never leaves the Reina Sofia), was specifically political. That exhibition was on the 70th anniversary of Picasso’s appointment as honorary director of the Prado by the Republican government. Also shown there was Picasso’s Massacre in Korea (1951), which is smaller, perhaps less exciting in its aesthetic, but equally powerful in its message, with its cringing women and children, and its almost sci-fi depiction of the armed and armoured soldiers standing like an execution squad with rifles raised. Guernica can’t come to Melbourne, but Massacre in Korea has.

Three sections of The Picasso Century were particularly interesting, for this viewer at least, including two rooms specifically devoted to politics. The first, titled “Art in Wartime”, contextualises Picasso and his contemporaries’ responses to conflict. Picasso and Georges Braque, close friends and collaborators, were both young men when World War One broke out. Braque enlisted in the French army, sustained a critical head injury (like Apollinaire) and was unable to work for two years. Picasso, a citizen of neutral Spain, remained in Paris. He didn’t don any country’s uniform but concentrated on his art. During the years of the Spanish Civil War, he did become friendly with the famous reporters and novelists Ernest Hemingway and Andre Malraux, as well as the famed art historian Carl Einstein and the photographer and painter Dora Maar.

Maar was a rising star in the surrealist movement, and a former lover of the left-wing philosopher Georges Bataille when she met Picasso in 1936. Prone to depression and anxiety (and treated by Jacques Lacan), she, unfortunately for her in the long run, became one of Picasso’s lovers and subjects. She sat for the last of the Weeping Woman series, made in 1937, which is owned by the NGV and displayed in the exhibition. She was also the photographer who documented the making of Guernica.

Nearby are the two plates of Picasso’s The Dream and Lie of Franco, a satire drawn in the style of strip cartoons popular in Spain at the time, also made in 1937 and prompted by the shocking turmoil in his homeland. The last four boxes in it, of a woman cradling her dead child, were added after Guernica was bombed, and a depiction of the woman, screaming, was later added to the painting Guernica. Also in this section are terrifying paintings including Francis Picabia’s Adoration of the calf (1941–42), Erwin Blumenfeld’s The dictator (1937), Ismaël de la Serna’s Europe (1935) and Georges Rouault’s Fugitive (1939–49).

The second explicitly political section is called “Political Engagement”, and it includes Massacre in Korea. The works displayed are placed within a context of Picasso’s engagement with the French poet Louis Aragon, for example, who, while a young medical auxiliary on the front during World War One, had met Andre Breton and the two went on to become leaders in the leftist French intelligentsia. Many of the other artists’ paintings shown here have to do with the exploitation of workers. Picasso’s contribution is his Abduction of the Sabines 4–8 November (1962), his mythological theme taken from Nicolas Poussin’s The Rape of the Sabine Women (1637–38) and Jacques-Louis David’s The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799). He painted it at the height of the Cuban missile crisis in November 1962, amongst worldwide fears of a third world war and the use of nuclear weapons.

The third section of unusual interest probes Picasso’s interaction with the Cuban painter Wifredo Lam. When Lam first visited Picasso’s Rue des Grands-Augustins studio in 1938, the two clicked instantly. “Lam’s discovery of Picasso’s work, seven years earlier, had come as a real shock,” Marie Sarre writes in the catalogue. Lam left Spain for Paris the day after the nationalist offensive and visited Picasso carrying a letter of introduction. He flourished under the tutelage of Picasso and his friends, and the realisation of the depth of oppression of black working people under the Batista regime intensified Lam’s activism in the black cause. This section is underpinned by the writing of Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, whose concept of Negritude and founding of the magazine L’Etudiant noir while at university in Paris were groundbreaking.

Lam’s paintings on show here display a hint of cubism, imagery gleaned both from his Parisian friends (such as the dove of peace in one, for example) and the postcolonial Latin and black culture from his homeland (including a preponderance of organic browns). In one painting, Untitled (1942), the influence of Picasso is unmistakable in its black outlines and juggled body parts, but the whole is tip-tilted, vertically disciplined and idiosyncratically gentle in colour.

There is so much more in The Picasso Century. Primitivism and surrealism have their sections, and cubism is illustrated not just with the paintings of Picasso and Braque, but also by others who experimented with the style, including Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, Jean Metzinger, Robert Delaunay and more. Taken together, the works here demonstrate Picasso’s influences on, and by, his milieu in Paris, when the city led the dramatic rise of modernism.


The Picasso Century runs at the NGV until October 9, 2022. Miriam Cosic travelled to Melbourne as a guest of the NGV.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

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