Many artists are charged with changing the course of art— for Pablo Picasso, it’s almost an understatement. Born in 1881, the Spanish painter (and sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist and theatre designer) was at the forefront of Cubism, creating famous works that continue to captivate in their formal audacity, and their complicated personal and political resonances. For more than 70 of his 91 years, Picasso contributed to— and changed—20th century art.
Ahead of the National Gallery of Victoria’s The Picasso Century, which features over 70 works by Picasso and another 100 by creatives he was in dialogue with, we asked five artists—Eleanor Louise Butt, Yvette Coppersmith, Euan Heng, Wendy Sharpe, and John Wolseley—to each reflect on one Picasso painting in the exhibition.
Yvette Coppersmith: Figures by the sea is both intimate and civilisational. It is a painting where edges meet. Sand, sea, sky, skin, teeth. It seems unambiguously ‘sex on the beach’, but veiled by the stylisation of forms. Its monumentality is akin to public sculpture—Bondi would be proud. It’s of the moment, and alludes to a precarious future where land mass is reshaped by sea.
The balance of bodily structures is in tension between desire and aggression, accentuated by the sparring tongues. The duality of masculine and feminine in Picasso’s figures is hard to discern; the psyche embodies this duality rather than two separate beings. The human is a monolith, the species that has shaped the evolution of the planet, and yet perched on the edge of pleasure, procreation and self-destruction. Picasso, the giant avant-garde modernist, picturing an embracing tussle.
The relationship of an artist with Picasso’s work is fraught, in being influenced by his oeuvre and maintaining their own language. I experienced this as I navigated the path from realism to a modernist sensibility several years ago. With the critical evolutionary moment we are in, there’s a need to relinquish the individual hero. to one of collective creativity.
John Wolseley: In 2008, in a forest on the side of Mont Saint-Victoire, I could see down into the garden where Picasso is buried in the grounds of his enormous, bleak chateau at Vauvenargues in Southern France. A work I did at that time, Pinson des Arbres Singing above Picasso’s Grave, Vauvenargues, hints at the mixed feelings I had about Picasso as I stood on the mountain so beloved by his precursor, Paul Cézanne. In the time that Picasso lived at the chateau, his paintings suggest he was curiously oblivious to the natural world around him, repeating himself, prodigiously talented but self-indulgent and disconnected. So different from the experimental period which produced Le violon.
Le violon harks back to my favourite of Picasso’s works—the paper collages that he (and Georges Braque and Juan Gris) produced from 1912 to 1914, which made such inventive use of everyday materials such as newspaper, tickets and commercial lettering. The playful use of different types of graphic representation emphasises the interactions which exist between things rather than presenting them as separate objects in the fixed space of the painting. A world of fragments and flux which strongly appeals to my own interest in the dynamic interconnection between all things. As the poet Paul-Jean Toulet said, “Artists are those people who pass their time putting together the broken pieces of the world.”
Wendy Sharpe: Purchased in 1985 by the National Gallery of Victoria, this painting was, at the time, the most expensive work ever acquired by an Australian gallery. The following year it was stolen by a group calling themselves the ‘Australian Cultural Terrorists’, who would return the painting only if the state government increased arts funding. Later, it was returned anonymously in a train station locker—luckily unharmed!
The painting is a universal image of suffering and despair with obvious links to Guernica, a painting Picasso had recently finished. Weeping Woman is one of 36 works on this theme, and is also said to reflect Picasso’s stormy relationship with Dora Maar—one of his lovers. It’s incredibly powerful and emotive. The splintered, jagged forms and bilious green are highly charged against the stark black, white and grey. Picasso’s inventiveness, daring and extraordinary audacity never cease to amaze.
I have an artist studio/apartment in Paris where I spend part of every year. I regularly visit the fabulous Picasso museum in Paris: it is always an enriching experience. I was shocked when, close to my studio, I accidentally came across a plaque outside a grand building on Rue des Grands-Augustins near the Seine. The plaque stated: “This is where Picasso lived and worked from 1936 to 1955, and painted Guernica in 1937” . . . So fascinating to imagine!
Eleanor Louise Butt: Painted 16 months after Henri Matisse’s death, Picasso’s L’Atelier de La Californie feels shrouded in Matisse’s presence. Picasso’s own studio has become his subject, depicting the opulent 19th-century interior situated on the ground floor of his Cannes villa. Decorative walls, floor, ceiling and furniture are painted with vigorous energy in shades of grey and brown, in contrast to the white light and green trees of the surrounding garden, framed by the Art Nouveau window. Matisse’s open-windowed interiors were similarly filled, with no detail left unnoticed.
Picasso has not depicted himself within this scene—we are seeing the studio through his eyes. The central blank canvas on the easel cries out for attention, its painterly surroundings threatening to slide onto its surface, creating tension between the perception of this scene as a two-dimensional painting and as a space we as the viewer are inhabiting. Paintings propped throughout the room suggest the vast number of works which would eventually fill this space.
This painting makes me want to rush into my own studio. A photo of Picasso’s Fruitbowl and Guitar (11/02/1932) is pinned to my wall and I have borrowed from its palette for many paintings, which has greatly opened the work up for me.
Euan Heng: Woman in an armchair is distinguished by its abstractness, its sudden colours, and, combined with an ‘incomplete completeness’, results in a compelling and persuasive painting. The directness of this work camouflages the complex thinking of Picasso and his methodology of making. To examine this period of Picasso’s work, and, in particular, his pictorial transformations of standing and sitting women, is to reveal further evidence of his exceptional curiosity and creative agility.
In 1994 I completed a work titled Hombre: the last great western. Central to this work of collaged quotations is a large bull, portrayed resting in a Fernand Léger landscape. Astride this bull, a dapper young man raises his hat in a salute to another. As an artist, Léger explored the future and located it in his industrial present, whereas Picasso drew upon art history’s past and relocated it in 20th century modernism. However, it took Picasso’s brilliance to discover and invent the painterly means to accomplish this. Writing about Hombre: the last great western, art critic for The Age, Gary Catalano, speculated that while I may be subservient to Léger, my belief, like many others at that time was that the Frenchman was subservient to another hombre, the somewhat tougher Spaniard, Pablo Picasso—the last great Western artist.
This article was originally published in the May/June 2022 print edition of Art Guide Australia.