STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
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World War I forced cubism into exile.
A short video in the midst of the new exhibition “Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change” at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia tells that a surge of French nationalism in 1914, in reaction to German aggression, led to a rapid change in that country’s politics and art. The innovative, fragmented forms first introduced by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in Paris came to be viewed as Germanic, and therefore barbaric and unpatriotic. The French nationalistic ideal of art shifted to the traditional neoclassical style, like that of 19th century artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.
Picasso found himself at a crossroads. Several of his friends, such as Braque, Guillaume Apollinaire and Fernand Léger, were deployed to the front. He was not conscripted to fight for France because he was a Spaniard. Although Picasso was a pacifist, the artist did not want to appear disloyal and never addressed the war in his art.
Besides the negative political stigma ascribed to cubism during the war, Picasso was also displeased with imitators like Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes (both are represented in the exhibit), and sought to do something different.
Six months into the war, he shocked his Parisian avant-garde contemporaries when he produced a conservative figure drawing in pencil of poet Max Jacob. That drawing, and several others by Picasso in the exhibit, are quite a departure from his paintings.
But instead of abandoning cubism, Picasso switched back and forth between the dissimilar styles of cubism and neoclassicism for more than a decade. Some of his paintings — such as “Studies,” “Mother and Child” and “Still Life with Fish” — even combine them, as if Picasso was breaking forms apart and making them whole again.
“For the first time, this exhibition tells an important story that we cannot tell in our collection,” said Barnes Foundation Executive Director and President Thom Collins at a preview event for “Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change.” The Barnes’ permanent collection has 46 works by Picasso, and the special exhibit — which the Barnes and the Columbus Museum of Art culled from American and European museums and private collections — features more than 60 Picasso works from 1912 to 1924, plus related works by Diego Rivera, Amedeo
Modigliani, Juan Gris, Henri Matisse (who was one of Picasso’s critics) and others.
One of “The Great War, Experimentation and Change”’s arresting rooms is filled with 29 photographs taken over three days in August 1916 by Jean Cocteau, while he was on leave from the Allied forces’ volunteer ambulance corps. The poet, novelist, designer, playwright, illustrator and filmmaker captures relaxed, spontaneous and candid moments in Paris’ Montparnasse neighborhood with friends like Picasso (who shows up in almost every picture), Jacob, Modigliani and composer Erik Satie. It was during these moments of revelry that Cocteau enlisted Picasso and Satie to collaborate with him on the 1917 Ballet Russes avant-garde ballet, “Parade.”
Picasso designed the costumes — several of which are hulking, three-dimensional realizations of his wild geometric cubist paintings, the theater curtain and the set. One original costume, three costume reproductions, photos taken in 1917 of the dancers in costume, design studies, and even video excerpts from a 2008 production of “Parade,” are the exhibit’s can’t-miss centerpiece.
The story of the ballet involved an itinerant theater group performing a sideshow. Although the artists involved thought the circus imagery was safe enough, the ballet was met with boos and hisses at its premiere in Paris, which occurred during some of the heaviest fighting of the war. Cocteau is quoted in the exhibit catalog publication as saying: “Fist fights broke out. They wanted to kill us. We were saved by Apollinaire because his head was bandaged; he was in uniform and therefore respected.”
It was through his work on “Parade” that Picasso met Olga Khokhlova, a Ballet Russes dancer. After they married in 1918, Olga guided Picasso away from his bohemian lifestyle in favor of new bourgeois social circles and a conventional, middle class way of life. She shows up as a subject several times in “The Great War, Experimentation and Change.” The exhibit suggests that this personal transitional period influenced Picasso’s stylistic duality.
“He was situating himself in a particular moment in art history,” commented the exhibition’s curator, Simonetta Fraquelli, an independent curator and specialist in early 20th century European art.
March 13: Lecture “Americanism and the French Avant-Garde: Picasso’s ‘Parade’ and Beyond,” 2 to 3 p.m.
March 14-April 11: Workshop “Picasso’s Wars,” Mondays 6 to 8 p.m.
March 15-April 12: Workshop “Lessons Picasso Taught Us,” Tuesdays 6 to 8 p.m.
March 17: Family program “ARTime Storytime: It’s a Small World,” 10:30 to 11 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. to noon.
March 23: Family program “Spring Break Family Artventure,” 10 a.m. to noon.
April 4-25: Workshop “Picasso before the Great War,” Mondays 6 to 8 p.m.
April 10: Lecture “Embattled Cubism: Picasso, Rivera and World War I,” 2 to 3 p.m.
May 1: Lecture “What Did Picasso See in Renoir?,” 3:30 to 4:30 p.m.