Picasso and his fellow artists
If you take a time capsule and travel back to the mid-20th century, the name Pablo Picasso dominated the popular impression of the outrageous artist.
He was photographed in black and white in magazines hanging around Europe with a succession of girlfriends.
To the conservative Australian eye, he seemed to epitomise the wayward artist.
Jump forward to almost 50 years after his death to the National Gallery of Victoria and The Picasso Century exhibition and he is anything but.
The exhibition has been curated by a Parisian and it is exact, elegant, restrained and moving in the sense that Picasso’s achievements seemed to be hard-won.
The same could be said for the recent Chanel exhibition at NGV, which focused on the techniques of dressmaking rather than the hype.
Picasso, like many 20th century pioneers, lived through two World Wars and these politicised him to the extent that after Geurnica, his 1937 painting of the Spanish Civil War, the message began to dominate his approach.
For those more interested in painting, though, this exhibition is a gold mine of experimentation, with collaboration with other artists the feature of the show.
Of the more than 180 works, just 80 are Picasso’s, the rest made by lovers, mates, technical guys and other artists such as Georges Braque who worked on one of the most inspiring developments with Picasso – cubism.
According to the didactic board, the two painters egged each other on like mountain climbers, one making a step forward then the other following. Sometimes they finished each other’s work.
Would they have had the courage to have abandoned representation and gone into pure abstraction without each other? Probably not.
The exhibition demonstrates how world events changed their style. After the first world war, Picasso’s work became more conservative, reverting to an almost classical style of portraiture.
One of the most decisive moments for Picasso was a meeting with Julio Gonzalez, a Spanish sculptor and blacksmith who offered technical help.
They were all living together in Monmartre where they had a chance to bounce ideas off each other.
Picasso began making metal sculpture and his painting jumped forward miraculously as he began painting the human figure in volumetric forms.
His famous bather series, so copied and taken for granted, jumps out of this exhibition as a major step forward in figurative painting with its restrained palette and free intertwined forms.
Soon after Picasso’s death, post-modernism put a cynical tarnish on this period of intense experimentation, casting Picasso and others of his generation as sole “geniuses” working alone in their egotistical cells.
This exhibition not only resurrects an important period in painting but shows how artists privilege their communities.
Picasso’s so-called artist model girlfriends were fellow artists whose work is also included.
The Picasso Century, National Gallery of Victoria, until October. •
Caption: Figures by the Sea, Pablo Picasso, 1951.