I’ve never really liked Picasso. Call me a philistine, call me art-ignorant, but I’ve always found his work cold, detached and cruel. Except for Guernica of course, which reduced me to tears. My antagonism was reinforced on reading the book Life with Picasso by Francoise Gilot, his lover and mother of two of his children. He did NOT sound nice! His misogyny, temperamental disposition and lack of respect for women as whole and equal human-beings, illustrated in the way he dissected their bodies, putting bits where they shouldn’t be and creating monsters, has always angered me. However, much to my surprise, I was transfixed by a recent exhibition of his work at the Centro Botin called Picasso Ibero (Iberian Picasso) which shows how influenced he was by the ancient statues and cave-paintings of the Iberos, Spain’s original inhabitants and indigenous people. The exhibition juxtaposes examples of works in stone, bronze and ceramic from all over Spain, some dating back to the 11th century BC, with an array of Picasso’s drawings, paintings, ceramics and sculptures. The simplicity of the lines in those ancient works seems to have inspired his reduction of detail down to pure abstraction; the ancient facial features are mirrored in his portraits and the stick-like animal figures on the cave walls influenced his animal depictions. I found particularly fascinating the progression in his studies of a bull, one of his key subjects. Alongside a large stone statue of a bull, there is a series of 11 lithographs created over just a few weeks in 1945-6 starting with a beautifully-crafted, detailed figurative depiction of a ferocious bull progressing through different stages to arrive at a unadulterated abstract bull consisting of just a few lines in the inimitable Picasso style. The exhibition shows how the Iberian relics led to his invention of a new artistic language for the 20th century: cubism. I spent hours poring over the well-documented artefacts, largely sourced from the Louvre, alongside his works; returning several times for further analysis. Understanding the roots of his work helped me to overcome my resistance. Next time there’s the chance of a Picasso exhibition I’ll be first in line – along with everybody else who took less time to recognize his genius!
Picasso Ibero, Centro Botin, Santander, 1 May – 21 September 2021
Volume 36 no 1 September / October 2021