Picasso on Paper

This article is from 2007.

Passion play

Alexander Kennedy explores the enduring mass appeal of Pablo Picasso as two major new exhibitions of the great 20th century artist’s work come to Edinburgh

As superstar artists go, it’s hard to beat Pablo Picasso. The vertically challenged troglodyte dominated the 20th century art world with such a colossal vision and talent that he not only changed what it meant to be an artist, but revolutionised what we accept to be art itself. Two of Edinburgh’s galleries will be packed full of his work during the Festival, with an exhibition of his ceramics and metalwork on display at the National Museums of Scotland, and his drawings and prints taking centre stage at The Dean Gallery.

‘He’s the greatest artist of the 20th century, and for me the greatest artist ever,’ says Patrick Elliot, the curator of Picasso on Paper at the Dean. ‘He was so imaginative and inventive in painting, sculpture, printmaking, ceramics, drawings, over a 75-year span. What’s amazing about him is that he kept changing and reinventing his work, but there’s no quality dip.’

As an avant-gardist provocateur, Picasso refused to jump to the ‘wild’ extremes of either pure abstraction or the glorious nihilism of anti-art, yet both strains of experimentation blossom from his early oeuvre. Lessons the artist learned in one medium were quickly developed in another, contributing to stylistic and technical advances that he wove together throughout his long career: ‘He caught onto print-making techniques of etching, lithography and linocut immediately,’ says Elliot. ‘He took these methods into completely new areas. All the technicians he worked with commented on how he grasped things straight away, poked away for a bit, and then did it all differently. He achieved effects that no one else had managed.’

Across Picasso’s work the bond between subject matter (the story) and surface matter (the flat marks that are made) is dislocated, never fully separated, but held together by force of will, insight, ‘genius’. And it is here that critics and art historians look in order to understand what drove the man and the artist, what worked the hand that created some of the most important works in art history.

An artist’s biography and how their aesthetic relates to it is the most difficult problem to solve for critics, historians and viewers alike. And Picasso’s rich and attractive life has enough material to fuel a dozen careers in the art world.
Indeed, Picasso’s life and art practices are almost inseparable. ‘He liked to change techniques every now and again, just to refresh himself,’ says Elliot. ‘He did the same with women; after a few years he moved on to another one. He was voracious, sucking people and sucking techniques dry. Once he had tested every possible angle he moved onto something else.’

Fired with Passion hopes to take the notion of Picasso as art superstar even further, with a hyperbolic subtitle straight from a Hollywood blockbuster: ‘His art, his loves, his life, beyond the canvas.’ Quite. The exhibition focuses on over 100 ceramic works drawn from various international collections, the first major showing of this work in the UK for a decade. Photographs and personal mementos will also be exhibited alongside some of Picasso’s most significant art objects, so the viewer can jump between life and work in order to make sense of the friendships he had with some of the world’s most significant artists: Jean Cocteau, Georges Braque, Lee Miller and Roland Penrose. Whether an art object can act as a gateway to the life and soul of an artist will be left to the viewer to decide, but the indubitable brilliance of his art and our enduring fascination with his life cannot be questioned.

Picasso on Paper, Dean Gallery, Belford Road, 0131 624 6200, until 28 Oct, £6 (£4); Fired with Passion, National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, 0131 247 4219, until 23 Sep, £6 (£5).

Picasso on Paper

A selection of around 120 graphic works spanning across 70 years of Picasso's professional life. Complex passions concerning women, politics, roguish love affairs and ruthless war strategies run deep, but at the same time are beautifully expressed in the simplest of graphic lines. A remarkable collection. Run in…

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