Blockbuster Picasso show in Richmond must be seen, but it's not all masterpieces

LINE DANCE: "The Acrobat" (1930) is among the 176 pieces in the Picasso collection. The key elements of Picasso's art are his gift for line, his penchant for drama and his disregard for color. (Photos Courtesy Of Reunion Des Musees Nationaux)
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By Jeffry Cudlin
Sunday, February 27, 2011

IN RICHMOND Some art careers are cut short by alcoholism, drugs or the dark fog of depression. Not so with Pablo Picasso: His main vice was the studio itself. Toward the end of his 92 years, Picasso was still working eight-hour days, sometimes staying up past 2 a.m. to finish a canvas. Estimates of the Spanish-born, Paris-based artist's lifetime output hover around 50,000 artworks - a jaw-dropping number.

"There's never a time when you can say, 'I've worked well and tomorrow is Sunday,' " the artist once said. "As soon as you stop, you start over."

Producing was never the problem. Instead, what declined was Picasso's ability to make art that mattered, speaking to anything other than his own tastes, compulsions and restlessness.

Not everyone agrees when Picasso's art jumped the shark. Some say 1919, when he exhibited two bodies of work together in Paris - revealing that he'd been two-timing Cubism, the avant-garde movement he and Georges Braque created, and was producing neoclassical realism on the side.

British art historian Simon Schama points to 1937, when "Guernica," Picasso's anti-fascist elegy, appeared at the Paris World's Fair. After "Guernica" comes a three-decade slide that Schama calls "the longest, saddest anticlimax in the history of art."

In the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts's installation of the traveling show "Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musee National Picasso, Paris," that anticlimax - lasting from 1937 to 1973 - takes up about half of the galleries. For better or worse, the show draws from every decade in which Picasso brought fractured spaces and distorted bodies into being.

"Masterpieces," which opened this month and runs through May 15, is a significant cross section of Picasso's career: 176 pieces, including drawings, paintings, sculptures, prints and photos. It is the only East Coast opportunity to view the collection. It's a blockbuster that demands to be seen, offering ample evidence of Picasso's ability to generate affecting sensual experiences.

What the show doesn't do is explain the artist's relationship to art history. Viewers trying to untangle Picasso's complicated legacy won't get much help from curator Anne Baldassari - who, despite providing elegant groupings of works and clever touches of exhibit design, doesn't offer a new argument for the man or his art.

"Masterpieces" is arranged chronologically, and divides Picasso's life into more or less equivalent units. It illustrates that Picasso never stopped making Picassos. Unfortunately, he did stop producing masterpieces. The good stuff is mostly in the first four rooms. The remaining six are a mixed bag.

African influence

The first great painting here is Picasso's 1901 death portrait of his friend Casegamas. Its collision of naturalism and overstatement recalls Van Gogh: Casegamas's profile is sensitively rendered; crude, thick strokes of slathered paint convey a candle in the background. The dead painter's ghastly green face is limned by yellow highlights; the background is a flurry of red marks. Here, at age 20, Picasso manifests the key elements of his art: his gift for line, his penchant for drama, his disregard for color.

For Picasso, line mattered most. This is clear throughout the blue period - his populist, sentimental phase, represented here by "Celestina (the Woman With One Eye)" (1904). There's barely anything to it: a black shroud, a blue backdrop and the wan face of a haggard woman with a cataract. The payoff is Picasso's fluttering line, defining a smirking mouth, a shock of silvery hair and one wary eye.

At the beginning, Picasso was a classicist; then he was in thrall to Impressionism. Then, in 1907, he visited the ethnographic museum at Palais du Trocadero and saw African masks.

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