Picasso as Sculptor
One of the greatest art excitements of the age is in store for visitors to New York’s Museum of Modern Art from October ll through January I when the sculpture of Pablo Picasso will be on display. Nearly 300 works, many of them long kept from view in the artist’s private collection, demonstrate that Picasso ‘s genius in painting is equaled in his work with plaster, bronze, sheet metal, and whatever material fell into the grasp of his supple hands and towering imagination. The ATLANTIC here presents a preview of the sculpture of art’s protean man of the century, who becomes eighty-six years old this month. The appreciation of Picasso as sculptor by Sir Roland Penrose, the noted critic and friend of the artist, is drawn from his introduction to THE SCULPTURE OF PICASSO, a book to be published by the Museum of Modern Art in connection with the exhibit.
IN ANY speculation about which of the visual arts first came into being in the infancy of man’s consciousness, it would be possible to make strong claims for sculpture. That crucial advance in human development, the first use of tools, which must have happened about as early as the domestication of fire, gave man a greatly increased ability to do things for himself. But an even greater change in his destiny occurred when it dawned on him that the tool could also be used as a weapon and could add effectively to his powers of aggression and self-defense. The resulting prestige and emotional significance of a stone already sharp enough to cut wood rose to great heights when it became an instrument with the power of breaking skulls, the arbiter of life or death.
This is not the place to attempt to trace the transition that seems to have followed from the tool and the weapon to the work of art, but it is noticeable that certain characteristics remain common to both. The admirable precision of form of a chipped flint, adapted originally to the hand that held it and to the scraping or cutting it was required to do, gives us an aesthetic pleasure; and the implication of power contained in the club, the ax, or the knife blade may probably be considered to be analogous to the emotional power of a work of art.
The link is to be found in the process of diversion of aim, or ritualization, as described by ethologists in the behavior of animals. In a similar way the weapon, potentially an instrument of aggression and genocide, forfeits its original significance and
yet retains the nonviolent power we find in sculpture.
In the Cook Islands there are jade ax heads designed as tools and weapons, but they are fixed on elaborately carved stands so that it is impossible for their use to be either utilitarian or aggressive; instead they are revered ritualistically as objects of awe and admiration. They become symbols of a powerful bond of unity and love within the tribe.
Independent of this symbolization of power there is another tendency, the origins of which seem equally remote, which appears to have a strong influence on the emotional power of sculpture. Man has the desire to see in certain objects a likeness to himself or to some other object of importance, though it is of an entirely different nature, and to attribute to it, in consequence, a vicarious form of life. The accidental likeness of stones or clouds to the human head, or of mountains, rocks, or gorges to our anatomy, has without doubt had ominous significance for our ancestors and continues to have a baffling fascination for us. To this we may add the ancient and universal habit of finding association between male fertility and the phallic shapes of stones. Philosophers, psychiatrists, and art historians have had much to say on this account.
Symbolism and metamorphosis are present in varying degrees in all sculpture, and they reach a high degree of significance in the work of Pablo Picasso. These are qualities which are not so directly evident in painting, where illusion, more or less sophisticated, is at the basis of visual experience. Sculpture has a fundamental advantage in that it appeals through the sense of touch as well as sight, and because in its simplest state it requires no tools, only hands, to model its form.
Another more fundamental analogy connects sculpture with life itself. The process of birth brings independent living organisms into the world, and it is in no way frivolous to compare this with the creation of sculpture in clay, bone, wood, or any other material that can be endowed with imaginary life. The biblical myth that Eve was made from a rib extracted from Adam during his sleep is remarkably close to the current theory that inspiration springs from the subconscious and is connected intimately with an obsession for a beloved person. Picasso’s assertion that each one of his works is a vial filled with his own blood has an archaic echo.
More than any other artist of our time Picasso has had the audacity to find his way back to the essentials of art by rediscovering its source. In sculpture, thanks to its basic primeval qualities, he is able to get even closer to the primitive emotional significance of art than in any of the other mediums, including painting, that he has used.
I do not wish to suggest that there is any serious division between Picasso the sculptor and Picasso the painter. On the contrary, throughout the great diversity of his work it is noticeable how closely knit are all forms of expression, and in particular the two major arts in question. It is impossible to consider one without the other.
In his youth Picasso proved his talent as both a sculptor and a painter by becoming highly skilled in conventional styles and mediums. His earliest known sculpture is a small bronze Seated Woman, 1907, which he modeled when he was twenty. The attitude of this figure is similar to that of the crouching women who clutch to their breasts their halfstarved children in his paintings of the blue period. It is as though painting had not satisfied his desire to know his model, to embrace her with all his senses. The simplifications of the folds of her dress and the melting of the limbs into the compact shape of her body show that the young painter already had the sensibility of a sculptor.
During the revolution in his attitude toward painting that reached its crisis in the winter of 19061907 when he painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, two surprising new influences made themselves felt. Both came from sculpture hitherto unknown or unappreciated. He became aware of the archaic vigor of pre-Roman Iberian bronzes which had recently been found in excavations near his native town, Málaga, and of a polychrome portrait bust of the same period, known as the Lady of Elche, which had been acquired by the Louvre in 1897. Their unorthodox proportions and their robust lack of refinement attracted Picasso, and these qualities soon made themselves felt in his own drawings and paintings and brought new vitality into his work.
This influence, however, soon became merged with another discovery that was to play an even greater role in the growth of his understanding of the significance of form. African sculpture had been discovered by his friends Vlaminck, Matisse, and Derain, who had begun to collect masks and wood carvings as early as 1904. Picasso combined the influence both of the Iberian bronzes and of African sculpture into his great painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, but it took him many years and devious excursions before he resolved the profound and subtle implications of these two influences in sculpture. Painting served in some ways as a testing ground for his sculpture. Already in 1908 he reduced his use of color almost to monochrome to allow the sculptural to assert itself unconfused.
There were, however, some direct results of African influence in his three-dimensional work, particularly in the wood carvings. For these he made working drawings with indications in color. The abrupt and radical changes of style through which he was passing tore him away from such direct influences and set him on a path that was to lead him to the discoveries of cubism.
Cubism can be described as a movement among painters toward the sculptor’s three-dimensional problems. Its preoccupation with form and with the desire to become conscious of an object from all sides, even entering into its inner structure in order to understand it, was opposed to former movements that had been concerned with impressions of color, atmosphere, and outline. The cubist methods Picasso had begun to use in painting were in fact closely related to sculpture, and in the Head of a Woman, 1909, on which he had set to work in Gonzalez’s studio, he wished to apply them literally. He was determined to see how far he could revolutionize the perception of an object in threedimensional technique.
Talking of this recently, he said to me, “ I thought that the curves you see on the surface should continue into the interior. I had the idea of doing them in wire.”This solution did not please him because, he added, “it was too intellectual, too much like painting.” This indeed suggests that he was looking for more primitive qualities in sculpture and also that momentarily he was not inclined to pursue this analysis in depth any further. He decided on a compromise, in which the head retained its solidity and volume while the surface was broken up into facets closely related to the analytical geometric planes he had used in cubist paintings inspired by the same model.
Having solved the problems presented by this particular piece, Picasso abandoned sculpture in the round almost entirely for about twenty years. However, during this time the far-reaching discoveries of cubism led him to a new form of union between the two arts. In November, 1913, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire became editor of a monthly review, Les Soirées de Paris, and published four reproductions of cubist constructions made by Picasso. These met with fierce disapproval from the subscribers and proved nearly fatal to the review. The constructions were the logical development of the cubist collage, an invention that had saved cubism from becoming an esoteric abstract style by the introduction of scraps of newspaper, cigarette packages, or similar evidence of real objects among, and creating a contrast to, the illusions of painting.
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These constructions, often brightly painted, broke the rules which demanded that a painting should remain two-dimensional and circumscribed by its frame; they came more into the category of the bas-relief, a compromise between twoand three-dimensional art. But this was not the only reason for the disapproval they aroused as outrageous innovations. The materials used by Picasso were of the most commonplace kind and therefore supposedly unworthy of a work of art. Any fragment of paper, wood, tin, cardboard, or string that suited his purpose was enlisted into this attack on former standards. The result was a composition in depth not contained within a frame, a revolutionary conception of new possibilities in both sculpture and painting. The object, usually a guitar or violin, was made to exist in depth by gaps and open spaces between its dismembered parts, giving simultaneously a sensation of transparency and solidity.
All art to some degree implies a metamorphosis, a change of identity, at least in the material of which it is composed. The surrealists, with whom Picasso had become closely associated from the early twenties, saw in this an important challenge to conventional conceptions of reality and a fertile ground for the germination of poetic images. It is here we find a close link between the theories of Breton and the developments in Picasso’s sculpture that took place during the years between 1928 and 1935. This period for Picasso began with a small modeled sculpture, called Metamorphosis, 1928, which coincided in date with a painting of the same title and subject. These works suggest a living organism with many attributes of the female form, but they are composed in such a way that it would be wrong to describe them by such a definite title as “Woman.” They are so compounded of what we know during our waking hours and what we recognize as a vision from our dreams that they escape categorical definition. By their ambiguous nature and convincing power, these works acquire an independent reality. From this it can be implied that reality can never be satisfactorily stated except by paradox and that in Picasso’s view the consciousness of contradiction and dialectical opposition is the guide to a new and clearer perception of truth. It is these tensions that interest him rather than the search for a harmonious equilibrium. “I want to draw the spirit,” he has said, “in a direction to which it is not accustomed and to awaken it.”
The great outburst of activity that had begun with the space constructions of 1928-1929 continued with metal sculptures composed of rough pieces of iron welded together. Fragments of machinery, kitchen utensils, and any piece of scrap that suited his purpose were incorporated. They were the most imposing sculptures he had yet realized. The biggest, the Woman in the Garden, 1929-1930, is nearly seven feet tall. It incorporated its immediate environment in a more literal way than the space constructions; and the use of metal rods and sheet iron offered opportunities for new developments. In these works Picasso also began to exercise his genius for finding objects whose identity could be changed according to how and where they were placed in relation to the other parts of the sculpture. He obliged a metamorphosis to take place in individual parts as well as in the whole — a process that he has developed brilliantly in more recent years and that has since been widely used by sculptors in many parts of the world.
An example of the way in which Picasso mingles his theories and his work is his sudden return, shortly after making his wire drawings in space, to sculpture of a very different kind, more compressed in form than any he had ever attempted. In 1931, taking long narrow pieces of wood, he whittled out of them a series of slender figures that because of their proportions appear to have the stature of giantesses. This ability to give scale to small objects so that they appear to be colossal is present throughout his work.
In the great bronze Man with Sheep, 1944, Picasso chose to use simple and direct methods. More than a year before, he had begun to make studies of a bearded man holding a frightened sheep in his arms, and clearly because of this careful preparation he was finally able to achieve the modeling of the seven-foot figure in a day. On an already constructed metal armature he rapidly built up the figure with balls of clay. The visual language he chose for this work was of immediate appeal. As though he wished at that time to make a communication easily understood by all, he deliberately took this archetypal theme to express himself in familiar terms. In doing so he sacrificed neither vigor nor tension. The surface treatment recalls the rough texture of the Jester of 1905, but it has none of the melancholy softness of the blue period.
The active play of light caught by the rugged epidermis, combined with the directional accents in the uneven texture, emphasizes the man’s rigidity in contrast to the confused struggles of the sheep.
With the wealth he found daily in the rubbish around him in Vallauris, Picasso produced some memorable visual puns, such as the head of the Baboon and Young, 1952, made of two small automobiles found among his son Claude’s toys. There are other smaller pieces, such as the little painted bronze Woman Reading, 1952-1953, which are made of rough pieces of wood, nails, and screws. They are astonishing for the grace and charm extracted from banal material. Another attack on the impossible is found in the Little Girl Skipping Rope, 1950.
The limp rope itself becomes her support. The girl, her weight emphasized by the clumsiness of her boots, sails through the air above a hard metal flower. This concentrated sequence of absurdities gives exuberance and life to this emblem of nonsensical high spirits.
Since 1947 Picasso’s activity as a sculptor has been accompanied by his work on ceramics. The manipulation of clay comes to him as naturally as does his skill as a draftsman. His supple, sensitive handling of the material produces forms that have the fullness of ripe fruit or the sinuous strength of a snake. Taking a pot fresh from the potter’s wheel, he kneads and twists it, and without losing the original fullness of its form, a common vessel becomes the lithe body of a young woman or the fluttering shape of a brooding dove. “To make a dove,” he has said, “you must start by wringing its neck.”
Ceramics have given Picasso a wide field for experiment in which the element of chance, so frequently his ally, plays an important part. The boldness of his treatment has often alarmed his expert assistants, but they have had to admit, after almost every firing, that he can achieve effects impossible to others. In his ceramic sculpture two of his most fundamental talents come equally into play: his ability to model clay in his hands and to draw rapidly with his brush on the surface. As a result, he arrives at a complete fusion of sculpture and painting.
His most recent phase in sculpture can be traced to primitive origins. His painted sheet-iron sculptures are born from childhood games. When he was a boy he used to amuse his sister Lola by his dexterity with scissors and paper. He could make dolls, animals, and fantasies with magic speed. There are photos by Brassaï of some twenty folded paper sculptures made in 1943 that are all extraordinarily alive, but it was not until 1953 that he found the means of enlarging and solidifying the small fragile maquettes by having them cut out and folded in sheet metal. In some cases the features of a face are painted on the surface; in others, they are drawn with arc welding. The result combines the two-dimensional significance of the drawing, the three-dimensional planes of the bent sheets, and the transparent space between the flat surfaces.
An illustration that stresses both the simplicity of Picasso’s methods and the visionary foresight with which they are conceived is given by Lionel Prejger, who worked on their construction. He says that he was first presented by Picasso with a large sheet of brown paper on which a strange octopuslike shape had been drawn. “That is a chair, said Picasso, “and you see there an explanation of cubism! Imagine a chair that has been run over by a steamroller, well, it would produce something like that.” Picasso then cut out the shape and folded the paper along lines he had already drawn, the final result being the Chair, 1961.
The sheet-iron sculptures are all carefully planned. With a delightful economy of means the simple sweeping curves of their outlines and the subtle play of light and shade on their surfaces combine to give them a sense both of movement and solidity. In many of them there is the clear-cut profile of Jacqueline, Madame Picasso; others are reminiscent of cubist constructions by the impression of transparency they establish. But whether they are birds, animals, or human figures, they all possess the tensions and movement existing in life.
The most important of his gigantic sculptures so far achieved is the great head in sheet steel some sixty feet high that was recently unveiled in the center of Chicago. In 1964 Picasso conceived this sculpture in response to an invitation to design a monument for Chicago’s new Civic Center. He had been well supplied with information about the site, and he produced a model in iron about four feet high which he insisted was to be enlarged precisely to the size required by the architects and engineers. The conception of a sculpture built in steel, composed of the profiles and surfaces of sheet metal, with open spaces contained in the gaps between them and areas enclosed by iron rods, is connected with discoveries which he made fifty years earlier. Its sources are in the cubist constructions of 1912—1914. The iron rods in the Chicago monument have affinities with the guitars of the cubist constructions, and the transference of the idea of a musical instrument to the head of a woman gives poetic echoes. The conception belongs to the “drawings” in space of the wire sculpture of 1928-1929 and the composite iron sculptures such as the Woman in the Garden of 1929-1930. However, it is unlike any of its predecessors. In this way Picasso’s dream of a great monument, which he expressed in charcoal drawings and paintings more than thirty years ago, has been realized.