What I Saw Over Winter Break: Picasso Black and White

Picasso's Guernica

Pablo Picasso painted Woman Ironing (La repasseuse) at the end of his Blue period, an era brought on by the suicide of his friend, Carlos Casegemas. The nature of the suicide was intensely tragic—Casegemas committed suicide when his lover left him for another man after he discovered that he was sterile and could not produce children. Picasso mirrored this dramatically sorrowful quality in his paintings from this period, which lasted from circa 1900 to 1904. Earlier in the Blue period, Picasso painted in stronger hues of blue than in the painting above, and later in the Blue period his blue tones became more muted, reaching the point of grey as in Woman Ironing.

This is the first painting we see in the Guggenheim’s exhibition, “Picasso Black and White,” a quite interesting and different sort of exhibition from those I’ve seen at other art museums this past year. The painting, giving us our first impression of the rest of the show to follow, sets a somber, serious tone. It suggests an artist who didn’t work in the business of pleasurable seascapes and cute children like other artists (I’m looking at you, Auguste Renoir). Although Picasso became quite commercially successful even while alive—something unusual for those of his profession, who often garner attention only after they’ve been dead for decades—his art doesn’t come across as that of an artist who tried to create crowd-pleasers. It lacks color and can be so abstract, it becomes utterly incomprehensible.

The atypical style of the exhibition only adds to the mystifying quality of the black, white, and grey works on view. The paintings are arranged along the spiral ramp of the interior of the corkscrew-shaped Guggenheim museum building, with each work contained in its own little alcove and plenty of space between them. One much-appreciated benefit of this organization is that by virtue of the space between paintings, the overall exhibition space is much less crowded, and you almost feel as if you’re viewing everything by yourself while everyone else in the museum is relatively far away looking at other art. The space also makes it seem as if there is an unusually low number of works on view. With 118 paintings and sculptures, it only contains 27 less works than the mammoth Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition “Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years,” but compared to that exhibition it appears as if “Picasso Black and White” displayed half as many works.

One disappointing aspect about the exhibition design was its paltry offering of accompanying literature in the form of captions, audio tour stops, and the catalogue itself. Only the most well-known Picasso works on view provide explanatory captions and an audio clip, but even these captions give precious little information. At about four intermediary points on the viewer’s ascent up the Guggenheim building, there are two medium-sized paragraphs of general information on the wall that give biographical background information about what was happening in Picasso’s life at the time that he completed the works to follow. While this is illuminating, it doesn’t go far enough to really explain why Picasso painted without color so often. The catalogue that accompanies the exhibition doesn’t help out that much, either, for it contains four short essays at its beginning and devotes the rest of its pages to 150 plates of the works on view in addition to other comparative works.

Given its lack of information, at the end of the exhibition it still isn’t clear what it means that Picasso painted in black and white all throughout his life in every stylistic period that he explored, including cubism, neoclassicism, and surrealism. The same cannot be said about his paintings in shades of blue or rose, colors in which he only painted for short periods of his life and never monochromatically resurfaced again. The only explanation offered is in the catalogue, where art critic David Sylvester comments that “the need to isolate often governs Picasso’s use of color…[there is] an assertion of chosen color…[and] that absence of variety in the color helps to isolate qualities of form. Black-and-white, then, seems to have been used because managing a complicated composition was enough without having to organize contrasts of color as well.”

I am particularly skeptical of this last sentence. Judging by his oeuvre’s sheer range, Picasso seems to possess such technical mastery. How could he really simply have chosen a monochromatic palette to make his job easier? And if he really was just trying to focus on form, why would he paint so often in exclusively black and white? Why not try just green, or just purple? I suspect that black and white had some sort of special significance for Picasso, but the exhibition never attempts to explore that possibility. Since it does posit that black and white was used to concentrate on form, it should have then dissected Picasso’s construction of form, which, especially in his Cubist and Surrealist works, can be very difficult to grasp, especially for the non-expert who really wants to understand it on a deeper level. It would have been nice to know how Picasso even went about constructing the non-objective black and white works on view, why he made the linear and geometric choices that he made.

Nevertheless, this exhibition was definitely worth seeing because the paintings on view belong to museums in Europe and are rarely seen in the United States. The viewer experience is also much more comfortable compared to that of other exhibitions because of the aforementioned space. Although “Picasso Black and White” might have had the potential to become tedious due to its lack of color variety, as a result of Picasso’s invariable, unique strength as an artist, at no point does the exhibition bore its viewers. Ironically, its panoply of ebony and ivory grants respite from the grey winter we see outside.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The Phoenix

Discover more from The Phoenix

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading