Pablo Picasso, the greatest artist of the 20th century, is also the most examined. It will probably take the distance of another century to find new light to shed on his long and protean career.
So on my visit to "Pablo Picasso: Preoccupations and Passions'' at the Naples Museum of Art, I tried to unpack some of my art history baggage and examine everything within the context of this exhibition. I suggest you just enjoy it. True, Naples is a bit of a hike from the Tampa Bay area (more than two hours from St. Petersburg). But it's easily done in a day, and a show like this is rarely so accessible.
That said, "Preoccupations and Passions" is in no way comprehensive and it doesn't contain any of his greatest works. You'll have to go to the Museum of Modern Art in New York or, even further, to the Musee Picasso in Paris to see those.
But Picasso lived such a long life (1881-1973) and worked so prodigiously that even a smaller show such as this one contains some mighty fine examples of his career.
It's arranged thematically, which sometimes coincides with chronology and invites cross-referencing throughout the galleries. It begins with "Les Pauvres," the poor people, created during what is now called Picasso's Blue Period (roughly 1901 to 1904), when he began living, off and on, in Paris. The earliest work is a pastel of the city's demimonde that owes everything to Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas. Picasso was obviously taken with entertainers and circus performers who inhabited his neighborhood, and probably with the irony of their poverty in contrast to the happy illusions they provided to their public. One of the most famous works in the show is included here, the 1904 etching Le Repas Frugal (The Frugal Repast). It was only the second etching Picasso had made and it's an amazing example of that medium technically, using light and shadow to complement its subject matter. It's really two separate works, a double portrait of impoverished French acrobats — their hands are sublimely attenuated — and a still life that invokes the painting of past Spanish masters, especially Velazquez. So it straddles both Picasso's past and present lives. It's a little over the top emotionally — maybe even a little calculated to be so — as are many works from that time.
Head of a Catalan Peasant (Josep Fontdevila), also in this gallery, is a portrait of the elderly innkeeper in the small Spanish village of Gosol, where Picasso stayed for a time. It's one of many renderings he made of the man, reputedly a former smuggler with a bad temper. Given the number of times Fontdevila sat for the artist, the two must have hit it off (there's also a bronze bust of him here). He resembles what Picasso would look like in old age but there's no way of knowing if the artist saw something of himself in the other's visage.
What's clear is that although the piece is representational, Picasso paints the angular features with greater pronouncement, prefiguring his move toward cubism. It's from 1906 and the artist was transitioning from his Rose Period into his African Period (the famous Les Demoiselles d'Avignon was painted just a year later), so the colors have more brown in them, although still with a reddish tinge.
"Still Life and Music" covers his decadelong experimentation with cubism (from 1909 to 1919), mostly in lithographs made in the 1960s from earlier collages in which he collapsed perspective and reduced objects to their most elemental shapes.
Picasso's private life, as we all know, could be considered fraught or juicy. It can be taken both ways in "Romantic Muses." A wall panel lists the eight "significant" women in his life and the art here either reveres or reviles them. With most of them, Picasso had the last word. Pity Olga Khokhlova, the ballerina he married in 1917. He portrayed her as an elegant beauty in their early days of love. By 1927 she had become the six-limbed virago of Composition who seems bent on emasculation. By then he had fallen hard for a lovely 17-year-old named Marie-Therese Walter. In contrast to Olga's depictions, he created tender expressions of the younger woman's pliant nature and uncomplicated sexuality in some of the prints from a group of 100 known as the Vollard Suite. (Not all the prints use Walter as a subject, and more from that suite, scattered throughout the galleries, are worth looking at as a group.)
Francoise Gilot seems the most interesting of the menage if only because she was the one woman who left Picasso, after 10 years (1943 to 1953) and two children, including Paloma of Tiffany jewelry fame. Her voluptuous figure is carved from multiple perspectives into a terra cotta vase (made for Picasso's friend, the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein) and her beautiful face featured in a dual-perspective lithograph emblazoned with a heart.
The majority of depictions belong to his last lover, Jacqueline Roque, whom he married in 1961 and stayed with until his death. Here she appears in a painting, lithographs and on the ceramics he began making in the 1950s and 1960s.
If Picasso was said to "devour" people, to be a world-class user with an unbearable ego (he once likened himself to God), he seems aware of his need for self-aggrandizement. Self-portraits and alter egos such as the Minotaur imbue him with plenty of machismo but also an element of brutality and his constant and insatiable need to demonstrate his masculinity.
Since Picasso himself has said his art reads like a diary of his life, and because details of his life have been so thoroughly excavated, biographical readings are inevitable. It's tempting to overload everything with that knowledge. There is plenty available in the wall texts of the exhibition. Maybe ignore them and see these images as an army of anonymous inspiration that paraded through his life. You might be familiar with some of the characters but you probably won't have seen them in these particular works. Meet them as first-time acquaintances you would like to know better. And that includes the artist.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.