Picasso: Black and White at the Guggenheim

by Sascha Feldman, November 2012

Picasso: Black and White exposes Pablo Picasso’s calculated, singular and obsessive formal language. Snaking up the rotunda of the Guggenheim in chronological order, the works act as a record of the artist’s exploration and treatment of black, white and gray from 1904 to 1971. Picasso’s elimination of color was applied to sculpture, paintings and drawings, with monochromatic imagery threaded throughout his Blue and Rose periods, as well as his cubist and neoclassical figurative paintings.

Picasso’s colors are often so vibrant and emotionally charged that in their absence we are left to concentrate on more subtle details, such as the thickness of the paint or the thoughtful play of light and shadow. The exhibition demands a heightened sensitivity to the implication and use of the artist’s deep blacks, milky whites and seemingly infinite variations of  gray. The painted  grays are often sculptural and three-dimensional in quality. His use of black may recall the charcoal etchings of cave paintings in one work, and resemble the dark, velvety paintings of Spanish masters El Greco, Goya or Velazquez in another.

The exhibition begins with Picasso’s Blue period in the first years of the twentieth century, when the artist was living in Paris. He was broke, unable to sell a painting, grieving the suicide of a close friend. The figurative painting Woman Ironing from 1904 shows an angular woman with coal-black eyes and cold, mossy skin. The woman’s gaunt shoulder blade is exaggerated so that it rises far above her head, anticipating Picasso’s later turn to abstraction. The collective lack of color allows viewers to concentrate on the ways in which Picasso elongated, sharpened and reimagined human anatomy as his career progressed. One can also better understand the facial features that Picasso favored in his models and muses—sculptures and paintings of lovers Dora Maar and Marie-Thérèse Walter similarly depict the same high, childlike cheekbones and bulbous noses.

The chronological hang demonstrates Picasso’s movement toward pure abstraction, especially in relation to the body. Shoulder and neck areas become more pronounced and stylized, and clavicles are continually used as a space for deep shadows and skeletal forms. Portraits from the 1930s and 1940s show Picasso using the human body as a foundation for geometric shapes and motifs—without vivid color, one can trace idiosyncratic elements such as gnashing teeth on mismatched jaws and rounded, asymmetrical breasts and eyes.  A portrait of Dora Maar from 1938 shows her sitting atop a throne-like chair. As her limbs blend in with the arms and legs of the chair, she metamorphoses from muse to menacing insect. In another portrait painted three years later she appears much softer—her plump finger rests on her lip leaving a slight imprint, suggesting her body’s weight and mass in a way that is largely absent from Picasso’s less figurative paintings.

Picasso often turned to  gray-scale for paintings inspired by the Spanish Civil War and WWII. In emotionally and compositionally complex paintings, Picasso withheld color so that it did not distract from the content. The Charnel House (1944-45) depicts the pain and suffering of the Holocaust with an extreme sense of frightful urgency. The restrained palette mirrors the difficult, confrontational subject matter, and references the newsreel footage of the war that inspired many of Picasso’s paintings. He also chose to privilege composition over color when paying homage to his art historical predecessors. The Maids of Honor (Las Meninas, after Velazquez) from 1957 illustrates Picasso’s reverence for Velazquez, the familiar image modernized by wild abstraction and a lack of the original painting’s natural tones. Picasso distills the image to its essential forms—his painting is an ode not just to the original work, but more specifically to its composition.

Though the exhibition draws together works of disparate media and subject matter generated over a period of seven decades, the focus on monochrome allows for an unprecedented, clear view of Picasso’s practice. Las Meninas exemplifies the objective of the exhibition, which is to show that in the subtraction of color, we become much more attuned to Picasso’s artistic process. With the elimination of color, the artist’s distinctive forms, symbols and silhouettes are unveiled.

Picasso Black and White
5 October, 2012–23 January, 2013
New York