Challenging the Past pits Picasso against masters at the National Gallery

By Ben Miller | 25 February 2009
A picture of a man looking at a framed print in a gallery

Room 1 of The National Gallery also features a selection of Picasso's prints

Exhibition: Picasso – Challenging the Past, Sainsbury Wing, The National Gallery, London, until June 7 2009

As studious art pupils go, Pablo Picasso must be the most successful of all time. Less diligent, more obsessed with the masters of the past, the rebellious child prodigy flitted between Barcelona and France at the end of the 19th century, soaking up inspiration from the likes of Manet and Courbet before unleashing his own abilities with sparkling swagger and wit.

He depicts himself as an 18th century dandy in a wig in one of the first exhibits in this latest attempt to follow Picasso's artistic development, and recalls Cezanne and Greek art in a nearby self-portrait with a palette from 1906. But the deep well of ideas Picasso drew from makes a concise summarisation of his various influences a delicate business.

That’s before you get on to the fearless guile with which he treated masterpieces – in reinterpreting Velasquez’s Las Meninas, Picasso adds his dog to the scene of Spanish maids, and animates Velasquez himself. Was this playfulness, mockery, a tribute or an attempt to supersede the original? The answer is probably all of these and more, but it encapsulates his desire to pit himself against history’s true greats.

In her book, Picasso’s Variations on the Masters, Susan Grace Galassi estimated that Picasso used Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass to create dozens of oil paintings, drawings, cuts, sculptures and plaques, and here we see characters from the original individually reprised, dissecting the whole thing into cut art and folded cardboard in 1962.

Manet himself had pinched the idea from an etching by Raphael, The Judgement of Paris, so Picasso would have viewed himself as only the latest in a line of great artists stealing from their creative forefathers.

The mark of Cezanne is back in Picasso's cubist works, laying almost scientifically structured strokes to create a style known as facets, where every part of the canvas is separately formed and defined to shape a precise yet distinctive aspect of the work.

The mesmerising Vase, Bowl and Lemon of 1907 is almost cylindrical, full of strong brush marks - somehow creating different angles within the same viewpoint. Still Life with Glass and Lemon, three years later, is perhaps the ultimate example of cubism, and there’s a defining work from the welded, multi-layered synthetic strand of the style in Fruit Dish, Bottle and Violin.

Poussin’s Rape of the Sabine Women receives colourful and deathly black and white reworkings respectively, and the voluptuous nude in Woman in a Red Armchair seems ready to burst off the wall, a flamboyant illumination of Ingres’ measured, careful style.

In fact, Picasso’s 1923 portraits of his wife, Olga, are the closest he comes to Ingres’ blueprint. They are faintly chilling – or their subject certainly is, all distant gazes and prim fur collars – standing out as studies of sobriety in a chamber of models and muses exploding with colour.

Splitting the rooms into categories rather than chronologies is an interesting ploy, underlining the reality that Picasso’s influences owed as much to theoretical genres as specific artists.

Femininity is a key theme in models and muses, prefixing cubism in Combing the Hair (1906), while masculinity prevails in the room of characters and types, featuring Head of a Man in a Straw Hat, a portrait of Picasso’s gardener he made at the age of 90. Child With a Dove anticipates his 'blue period', when he used the colour to emphasise the vulnerability and loneliness of Girl in a Chemise.

The Still Life room reveals how politics and eras played their part in his work. Skull With Jug (1943) contrasts colour and darkness, setting death next to a beaker full of the water of life, and the suffering of the coming of war is brought to life by Flayed Sheep’s Head, an ominous bode formulated on the eve of the Second World War.

The exhibition is a real joy to wander, but the most satisfying result of it lies in the opportunity to concentrate on precisely how Picasso took on some of the finest artwork in history.

Curator Christopher Riopelle must have realised how easy it would be to fill his galleries full of old master paintings, a tactic his French counterparts were roundly criticised for when they gave as much space to Picasso’s influences as they did to his amalgamations in Paris last year.

Here their prominence is replaced with allusions through subtle pictures, commentary and a thorough catalogue, placing faith in the intelligence of visitors to pursue further for themselves.

An accompanying room in the main part of the National Gallery also explores some of the prints Picasso made, taking in Rembrandt to Manet and poet Benjamin Peret.

Open 10am-6pm, Friday until 9pm, Saturday until 8pm. Last admission 5.15pm (8.15pm Friday, 7.15pm Saturday). Admission £12 (£11 concession/senior, £6 students/unemployed/Tuesday pm), family ticket £24. Free for under-12s. Entry to the prints exhibition is free. Call 0844 209 1778.

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