Picasso: Challenging the Past (National Gallery, 2nd May 2009)

It was very busy when I went to see this exhibition, so I felt rather claustrophobic and the viewing felt pressured. I wanted to get close to the paintings and stand back as well and this wasn’t always possible and often viewing was over shoulders or from the sides of the works. This shows how popular the exhibition was, but also I felt that the context of viewing framed some of the thoughts I had on the paintings.

For me, the joy of the viewing was to experience the works from different perspectives. It was fascinating to consider Picasso’s work next paintings he’s been influenced by and how he had reworked the ‘old masters’. The exhibition is sub titled, ‘Challenging the Past’, but it felt at times I was looking at work that also embraced and celebrated the past.

What struck me on entering and then going round the exhibition was the colour. Colour and contrasts in colour seemed very important to Picasso and the way the exhibition had been put together really highlighted this. An important part of going to an exhibition like this is that you can get close to the works and can see the detail such as the brushstrokes and the canvas itself. The exhibition is set out in themes such as sitters and variations. The exhibition guide invites you to compare Picasso’s works with, so I didn’t feel I missed out on seeing the paintings that had influenced Picasso. One of my favourite pieces is ‘Man in a Straw Hat’. The face is made up of shapes, broad brush strokes and pointillism and you can see the texture of the canvas which makes up the profile. For me when viewing the painting, I want to my brain to organise the lines and shapes into the face, though being close up you can see that it is more than this.

What I felt when viewing the exhibition was that Picasso’s works seemed to take ideas expressed in the old masters and develop and work with the idea. The combing hair of the hair in Titian, becomes sexually inviting in Picasso. Cubisim takes Still Life and works with the textures of the objects to really make you think about the how the individual objects respond and relate to each other. Manet’s ‘Luncheon on the Grass’ is translated from a the pretence of elegance and respectability. ‘The Women of Algiers’ (Delacroix) is broken into blocks and lines of colour which highlight the sensual nature of what is happening. Large nudes celebrate the female form without idealising it.

One of the most striking images for me was the way in which the horror and violence in Poussin ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’, is really highlighted in Picasso’s interpretation with the mass of limbs right up to the foreground of the canvas.

When writing this, I am finding it difficult to find a vocabulary to discuss these paintings because I feel that Picasso is challenging the way we represent and portray. In looking and experiencing the paintings, I felt I was encouraged to think in different ways and the whole show was compelling.

Reviews and Previews

MARY ELLEN SYNON: Blockbuster? No, Picasso was …
Picasso: Challenging the Past at the National G…
Picasso at the National Gallery – Telegraph
National Gallery and Tate end row over 1900 – T…
Picasso: Don’t look back – Features, Art – The …
New Statesman – A painter under the influence
FT.com / UK – Faces from an abstract life
National Gallery defends right to stage Picasso…
Poor Picasso Arts This is London
Coming Soon: The fine art of copycatting – News…
FT.com / Columnists / Jackie Wullschlager – Pic…
Clash of Titians as National Gallery moves in o…
Picasso: Challenging the Past, National Gallery…
Picasso v Old Masters at National Gallery – Tim…
My week: Diana Widmaier-Picasso – Times Online
Picasso: Challenging the Past at the National G…
Peter Conrad explores the many faces of Pablo P…
BBC – London – Places – Picasso at the National…

Catalogue

Cowling E et al. (2009) Picasso. Challenging the Past. London, National Gallery.

Challenging the Past National Gallery Picasso

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