A new view of Picasso as sculptor and painter at the Tate

The Tate Gallery's major spring exhibition is a reassessment of the role of sculpture in Picasso's career

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February is Picasso month in London: to coincide with a major exhibition at the Tate Gallery, the BBC is broadcasting a series of specially made TV programmes about the artist, and Harvey Nichols department store, famous for its clever and artistic displays, is decorating its seven main windows in the style of his work. Each window, designed by two former graduates of the Royal College of Art, contains sets dedicated to the women responsible for inspiring the successive phases of his development: Fernande, Eva, Olga, Marie-Thérèse, Dora, Françoise, and Jacqueline.

Four years in the planning stages and sponsored by Ernst and Young, “Picasso: Sculptor/Painter” is a scholarly reappraisal of the sculpture of Picasso and has been organised by the powerful curatorial team of Dr John Golding, artist (see p.27), author of "Cubism: A History and an Analysis" and formerly lecturer at the Courtauld Institute and senior tutor at the Royal College of Art, with Elizabeth Cowling, senior lecturer at Edinburgh University and co-curator of “On Classic Ground” which was held at the Tate Gallery in 1990.

In the longest and most productive career of any artist in the twentieth century, Picasso created nearly 1,000 original sculptures in conventional and experimental media, making work from tin, iron, wire, paper and a wide range of found or purchased objects such as kitchen colanders and bicycle handlebars, as well as the more conventional wood, plaster, bronze and pottery, (he never carved marble and only occasionally scratched at stone).

But the artist tended to regard his sculpture as a private investigation and kept the bulk of his production for himself rather than showing or selling it.

Only on the occasion of an eighty-fifth birthday exhibition held at the Petit Palais in 1966 was the extent of his activity as a sculptor revealed, to the astonishment of even his closest friends. A version of that exhibition was presented at the Tate Gallery the following year. But neither then, nor with “Picasso: Das Plastische Werk”, curated by Werner Spies and Christine Piot for the Nationalgalerie, Berlin (1983) and the Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf (1984), an occasion which resulted in the publication of their complete catalogue of Picasso's work in three dimensions, nor in the Museum of Modern Art's monumental survey of Picasso's work (1980), was the relationship between the artist's paintings and sculpture examined, and it is this enquiry which Dr Golding and Ms Cowling are conducting.

Their conclusion challenges the preconception that sculpture was a less important or successful business for Picasso by proposing that there were occasions when the originality of his sculpture matched, or even surpassed, the innovation of his paintings. Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Dr Golding drew attention to the period of late 19l2-14 “when all the barriers were down and there was no distinction between painting and sculpting in low relief and the "papiers collés"”; to his work at Boisegeloup; to the period of World War II; and to the bent metal sculpture of the late Fifties, developments which helped to shape the course of his painting.

In order to illustrate their thesis, Dr Golding and Ms Cowling have selected seventy sculptures which will be arranged in chronological order and displayed with one hundred paintings, drawings or prints which can be related to them.

Significant loans have been obtained from the Musée Picasso, Paris, where Ms Cowling spent a recent three-month sabbatical. Dr Golding told The Art Newspaper that the exhibition could not have been mounted without the museum's cooperation since it is the custodian of such a large group of those sculptures which Picasso kept in his own possession. With the exception of “Mandolin and clarinet” (1914), which was regarded as too fragile to be loaned, the organisers obtained virtually all the works which they had requested from this source. They include the wood “Figure” (1907), “Bottle of bass, glass and newspaper” (1914), the painted sheet metal “Violin” (1915), the iron “Head” (1928), “Pregnant woman” (1949), “The Goat” (1950) and a series of nine pencil and crayon drawings of the various participants in “Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe” (1962) executed on folded sheets of card.

Other significant loans are “Two Nudes” (1906) from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and “Seated female nude with crossed legs” (1906) from the Narodni Galerie, Prague, both of which Dr Golding identifies as pivotal paintings for the development of Cubist sculpture; the original plaster and bronze versions of the head of Fernande (1909) which will be exhibited with two related paintings from a private collection and from the Art Institute, Chicago; a Cubist still-life composition from a private collection in Switzerland which has not been exhibited for thirty years; and “The Orator” which is usually dated 1937 but which Dr Golding and Ms Cowling have brought forward to 1933-34, one of several new proposals for the chronology of Picasso's development advanced in the exhibition.

From Picasso's later career, there is “Composition: two women” (1958), a rarely seen oil painting of enormous dimensions from the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, Caracas; and “Large profile”, the distinguished head from the Nordrhein-Westfalen collection, Düsseldorf. In addition, there are nearly twenty works of art loaned from family sources which have never previously been exhibited.

The catalogue (£19.95) for this great project, which, with the sketchbooks (1986), “Late Picasso” (1988), “Pioneering Cubism” (1990) and “Picasso and things: the still-lifes of Picasso” (1992), will make a major contribution to Picasso studies in recent years, has been entrusted to a team of scholars. In addition to introductory essays and catalogue entries compiled by Dr Golding and Ms Cowling, Pepe Karmel assesses the guitar as a subject in Picasso's art in 1912-14, Peter Read traces the development of ideas conceived in Picasso's sketch-books with particular reference to the Apollinaire monument, Marion McCully examines the relationship between Picasso and Gonzalez, Claude Picasso comments on the ceramics and there is an interview with Lionel Prejger who collaborated with Picasso in making his sheet metal sculptures.

“Picasso: Sculptor/Painter” opens on 16 February (until 8 May). The television programmes are being screened by BBC2 (12-20 February) and include three created by Picasso's biographer, John Richardson, investigating Picasso's brief ownership of a selection of Iberian sculptures stolen from the Louvre, his visit to Horta in 1909, and the paintings and sculpture of Marie-Thérèse Walter which Picasso created at Boisgeloup.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Picasso: sculptor and painter'

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