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Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Rubbed and Taylored


Pablo Picasso at the
Philadelphia Museum of Art
By Richard Carreño
Junto Staff Writer Bio
'Señor Picasso, meet Mr. Rub.' That introductory allusion to Timothy Rub, the Philadelphia Museum of Art's new director, might be the cheeky sub-theme of the new Picasso retrospective at the PMA, officially titled 'Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris,'  and which was introduced to the public February 24.
Michael Taylor, the museum's curator of modern art, has fashioned an installation that unveils for all to see, for the first time in recent memory, the astonishing range, depth, and quality of the PMA's Picasso holdings. In other words, it's all Picasso, all PMA.
The show is the first major exhibit crafted during Rub's new directorship (he was appointed last year), and also gives Rub a foretaste of the curatorial excellence that he can expect when the museum's staff mounts a 'rilly big shew.'  Such star-quality production numbers were a hallmark of Rub's predecessor, Anne d'Harnoncourt, who was among those who almost invented the genre.
Taylor's exhibition is a few bricks short of a d'Harnoncourt blockbuster. No made-to-order catalog. No plastic wrap on museum's east front 'Rocky' steps. No road-show destinations. And most significant, no loaned material. Hardly the kind of spectacle that might have been ringmistressed by d'Harnoncourt.
But, then, why? Financial considerations? Sure. This, especially, when the museum is experiencing well-known shortfalls and an endowment plunge. And despite state funding and donations by the Pew Charitable Trusts, GlaxoSmithKine, and others.
Still, Taylor -- a surprisingly masterful polymath at only 42 -- has demonstrated that the PMA can do justice to every nuance in the Picasso saga. This is a show that fully details its homage to Picasso.
Equally, we can recognize the PMA. Taylor has emptied the museum's attic, and dusted off 214 paintings, sculptures, photographs, and other artworks that even museum faithful haven't seen in decades and, undoubtedly, never in such a grouping. (Much of the artwork is drawn from the A.E. Gallatin and the Louise and Walter Arensberg collections).
The viewer traces Picasso's artistic tour de force in a gallery walk-about that's introspective, scholarly, and, yes, even academic. (Not surprisingly, Taylor also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania). And mellifluously coherent, thanks, as well, to Taylor's audio narrative. (Rub gives the overall introduction).
The story-line is linear, tracing Picasso's prodigious inventiveness from 1905 to 1945 while he lived in Paris in-self imposed exile from his native Spain, then dominated by fascism. The period is also significant in that kick-started a creativity that endured through the rest of the artist's life, until his death at 92 in 1973. It was also a 40-year period in which Picasso dominated the forefront of change, the birth of Cubism; Synthetic Cubism (involving his works in collage and papier colle); and Surrealism.
I'm always surprised that the museum's one-size-fits-all special exhibition space, the Dorrance Galleries, can always step forward to meet all-comers, and the galleries, now with freshly white-painted walls (one exception), are also serving this show well. This especially since crowds are gathering. (The day I visited, during a member viewing, a guard told he was clicking in almost 1,000 attendees per hour).
Picasso's 1906 self-portrait, the show's signature piece, has a pride of place in Gallery 1. The figure is dressed like a boxer, according to Talyor. 'Very muscular, with a mask-like quality.'
Other key pieces follow in quick succession. Man with a Guitar (1912), Three Musicians (1921), counter-pointed -- here is Taylor at his best -- by works by fellow-travellers like Georges Braque and Fernand Leger and other avant-gardistes like Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, and Man Ray, also were Parisian contemporaries. 
This contextual envelope includes photographs of other Parisian notables and, separately in Gallery 5's high-ceiling space, Marcel Duchamp's iconic Nude Descending a Staircase.
The show concludes with a lightening bolt, one of Picasso's best known and heart-breaking  sculptures, Man With a Lamb. The bronze, crafted from 1943 to 1944, is a bold, visually-stunning testament of Picasso's reference for peace. And all the more dramatic in that was executed when Paris was still under Nazi occupation.
Taylor, in his audio guide, called the work a 'prayer' for the liberation of Paris and for its survivors. It's now, as well, 'a memorial to the French resistance,' he said.
  
Some distractions?
Nude Descending is hard to see. Unlike virtually all the works in other rooms, hung at eye level, Nude Descending and several other works are raised above, out of a clear sight-line. This is further compounded by lighting that ricochets off the picture's glass case and by crowds that force a viewer to retreat to better vantage points.
The photographs also introduce some extraneous context links. I've always liked the ubiquitous photograph of F. Scott Fitzgerald in his Brooks Brother shirt. But I found it a contextual stretch, given that the portrait was probably snapped in the 1930s in Baltimore.
I also found the labeling, without canvas dimensions, disconcerting. I guessed at the size of one of my favorite urban landscapes, The City (1919) by Leger. It's about 8 feet by 10 feet. I was way off.
Further, a companion complained that no graphic rendering of Picasso's most favorite painting, Guernica, was offered as reference. This, though the iconic anti-war picture was mentioned several times in relation to Salvador Dali's Self Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) (1936). Also missing: No mention of Amedeo Modigliani.
These are just small bumps in otherwise a seamless journey of pleasure, wonderment, and learning.
'Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris' runs through April 25.
By the way, if you haven't had your full of Picasso, the Metropolitan Museum of Art plans more. Also using only works from its collection, the Met kicks off its show April 27, running to August 1.

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