The prolific and versatile traits of Picasso’s talent are manifest in the current riveting exhibition at the Lightbox in Woking. It gives a clear-cut vision of Picasso’s artistic development focusing on his printing and ceramic works and highlighting his experimental technical approach, innovative both in forms and subjects, and amply contextualizing the different works of the artist’s multi-faceted career.
Though the works are not in a chronological order, the captions summarise effectively the different stages of Picasso’s artistic development, explaining the main characteristics of, for example, Cubism or the Blue period, contextualising each picture within the artistic movement of the time and highlighting Picasso’s innovative contribution.
Moreover, there have been two photographic exhibitions as well; photos of Picasso taken by the professional photographer Lee Miller, and by an amateur, Stanley Stanley. This is an opportunity to see a different aspect of the great artist.
An overview of the main stages of Picasso’s development are present in the timeline introducing the exhibition. Good examples of his work are in the etching of ‘The frugal meal’ (1904) testifying the sombre Blue period, possibly influenced by the death of his friend Carlos Casagemas and of Picasso’s life as an art student in Paris, with angular elongated figures and sad expressions; or in the ‘Woman’s face’ where the figure is both seen in profile and frontal view, giving a surrealist, 3D impression.
The essential quality of his drawing technique, where the line is reduced to the basic and yet expresses a total vision of the subject, is clearly shown in the etching of the ‘Woman with a book’ (1918-19), which recalls the works of the Renaissance masters, with simple lines suggesting the folds of the dress and the stress on the hands holding the book. These characteristics emphasise Picasso’s innovative interpretation as well as his legacy from previous masters; they also underline his tendency to simplify his figures, not in the sense of making his work easier, but in the sense of making it more essential and effective. The exhibition highlights very well this quality of the artist’s work both in the pieces exhibited and in the explanations.
The other important feature emphasised in the exposition is Picasso’s incredible ability to experiment and mix different media, evident both in the printing and ceramic works on display. He began his apprenticeship in printing at Fernand Mourlot’s studio in 1945 where he used to spend whole days and late into the night experimenting with different techniques - engraving, linocut, drypoint, etching, lithograph and aquatint, mixing the different methods or inventing new ones.
His pioneering attitude, a constant feature of his artistic career, enabled him to create a new figurative language. Especially in the posters he produced at Vallauris, a village in the Côte d'Azur where he lived in 1948-1955, the colours and the figures communicate a message that intended to attract the interest of the viewer and was easy to remember.
For him, printing was not simply a way of reproducing images but an exploration of his never-ending creative process; he did not totally rely on ready-made traditional approaches but reworked the printing blocks. For example, ‘Le banderillero’ (1959) shows in four stages how he reprinted the paper with different colours.
Another important example of this innovative creative approach is in the ‘Portrait of Jacqueline Roque’ (1958) where the lithograph is produced from an inked stone in which he scratched the white contours against the black, reversing the traditional technique of drawing in black on a white background. The effect is surprising in the shadowing of the face’s features giving a sensation of depth and rich texture. In other works he combined etching and aquatint or etching and drypoint.
His eclectic, fruitful approach not only allowed him to experiment with different materials and techniques but also produced original mixed works both in subject and in form. For him art work was a way to penetrate and understand mankind and the world, in his search for a new conception of art.
Picasso saw himself as a revolutionary and art was his tool to make men and women freer. At the same time he thought that art was not an imitation of nature but a lie, a necessary aesthetic lie. Thus, art is not simple decoration but an exploration of an idea of the world which is essential to understand and influence society. The writer Gertrude Stein, who supported and funded him in the early years of his artistic life, said that through his art work Picasso communicated “the truth which only he can see”.
In addition to the etching and the engraving examples of the Vollard Suite, a series commissioned by Ambroise Vollard revealing a neo-classical taste with Greek and Roman themes in part autobiographical, the exhibition also shows his commitment to the theme of peace with one of his famous doves he made to support the French Communist Party.
When he moved in Côte d'Azur after the second world war, he was a famous and rich artist. At Vallauris he started to work in the Madoura ceramic studio owned by Suzanne and Georges Ramié. In the area they had been producing ceramics since the time of the Romans and Picasso both learned from the traditional craft and experimented with new forms and subjects inspired by primitive African and Iberian art, as had already happened in his paintings since ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ (1907). In the first year he produced about 2,000 pieces triggering a new flourishing of the ceramic trade in Vallauris.
The exhibition shows standard plates he marked and modified before they were dry and then decorated and glazed with different coloured slips. Similar subjects, like a bullfight, a picador or a goat, are presented with different experimental techniques. In the vases he used to combine different pieces in a sort of collage, merging the decoration with the shape. This is evident in the animal-shaped vases, like the ‘Owl with feathers’ or the ‘Dove’. Eventually he hoped to produce a plaster mould to make more affordable ceramics. Some of the works exhibited were on sale, ranging from £ 2,000 to £ 30,000.
At the Lightbox there is the opportunity for both children and adults to create your own drawing with paper and pencils, imitating Picasso’s work, together with two lightboxes with coloured plastic shapes with which to play and explore the master’s work.
On the second floor of the gallery there’s the exhibition of Picasso’s photos taken by Lee Miller (open until 17 June). Lee Miller and Picasso met in 1937, and then again after the war. She took more than a 1,000 shots for her husband Richard Penrose’s biography of Picasso; they show the artist in his villa and at work, his powerful personality and inexhaustible creativity apparent from the pictures.
At the Art Fund Prize Gallery until 29 April there were some photos that Stanley Stanley took of Picasso, his daughter Paloma and the art dealer Ernst Ascher in Golfe-Juan where Stanley met the artist by chance on the beach. The photos showed the artist relaxing at the seaside and having fun with his friends. Stanley never met Picasso again but the artist gave him a ceramic plate that Stanley cherished till his death.
The main Picasso exhibition is at the Lightbox until 24 June