‘A genius is a sponge’: inside the new Picasso exhibition that isn’t all about Picasso

The Picasso Century at Australia’s NGV sees the artist share the spotlight with 50 of his contemporaries, and explains how one man could ‘catch and translate all the values of a time’

There are eight of them in the painting, not counting the dog. In the centre sits the writer Guillaume Apollinaire, his hands resting in his lap. To the right is the artist herself, Marie Laurencin. On the left is novelist Gertrude Stein.

Didier Ottinger, assistant director of the Centre Pompidou in Paris points out these famous names, then draws my attention to a dark eyed man with a sweep of fringe, just behind Apollinaire’s left shoulder. It is Pablo Picasso – the man at the centre of the exhibition we are about to walk through, inside the National Gallery of Victoria.

When an exhibition is framed around a famous artist “in conversation”, a cynical voice in my mind whispers that maybe it’s just a way of bulking things out, that a gallery couldn’t get enough works by the artist they really wanted. That is definitely not the case here. The Picasso Century, developed for the NGV by the Centre Pompidou and the Musée national Picasso-Paris, is a triumph 10 years in the making, from idea to final form. That’s how long it took to ensure that all the key works – in high demand by galleries around the world – would be available to tell the narrative that Ottinger had planned out.

Inside The Picasso Century at the NGV.
Inside The Picasso Century at the NGV. Photograph: Peter Bennetts/NGV

Relationships are at the core of The Picasso Century, and Apollinaire and his Friends (1909) helps set the tone. While the titular artist’s presence is strongly felt throughout, the exhibition unfolds more like a novel rather than a monologue. Picasso is put in context: of the world around him, and, more importantly, the people who inspired him – and vice versa.

“The very first idea I had for the show was to demonstrate that a genius is not coming out of the blue, but someone who is able to catch and translate all the values of a time – the painful events, the good ideas, the bad ideas,” says Ottinger. “A genius is a sponge, not someone floating above the world.”

Woman with a guitar (Femme à la guitare) 1913, Georges Braque.
Woman with a guitar (Femme à la guitare) – 1913, Georges Braque. Photograph: Centre Pompidou

The rooms are structured chronologically, starting from the early 1900s when Picasso first moved to Paris. Throughout, his works are complemented by those of his contemporaries, showing how they influenced and borrowed from one another. One room is dedicated to the development of cubism, which Picasso worked closely on with artist Georges Braque. Another tracks the progression of surrealism. The two world wars play a significant role too, literally breaking up the exhibition and showing how it fractured and changed the art world.

NGV senior curator Miranda Wallace likens the exhibition to a choose your own adventure: “There’s a lot in there, and a lot of stories to tell.” You can enjoy each work individually and it is a rare opportunity to see so many significant works by Picasso gathered in one place. But, as a walk through history, as a story of how individuals are shaped and broken by the world around them, it’s especially poignant.

Tracking the development – then frequent disintegration – of Picasso’s relationships is one of the most striking aspects of the exhibition. Early on, the work of Picasso and Braque is difficult to tell apart. “They were very close friends, like brothers, seeing each other every day, every evening in the studio, and starting the great adventure of cubism,” Ottinger tells me.

But after the first world war, the tone shifts. The room is filled with paintings that look more realistic, more classical; this is a reflection of a change in attitudes, Ottinger explains: “Before the war, it was invention, it was cubism, the future and then suddenly it was broken. This hope, this movement, was broken.”

Following the war, Braque and Picasso’s relationship was forever changed. “Picasso used to say, in 1914, Braque went to the war and I never saw him again,” Ottinger says – not literally, but the man Picasso knew before was gone.

“For two years [Braque] couldn’t paint,” adds Wallace. “When he did start to paint again … his paintings look very different.”

The violin (Le violon) – 1914, by Picasso.
The violin (Le violon) – 1914, by Picasso. Photograph: Audrey LAURANS/Centre Pompidou

There are connections to be found everywhere. There’s the push and pull between Picasso and Matisse – the two were introduced by Gertrude Stein and enjoyed a friendly rivalry across their careers. “When Matisse died in 1954, Picasso decided to extend Matisse’s work by picking up his subject, and going further … he didn’t dare to do that when Matisse was alive,” says Ottinger. There’s also his generous support of and collaboration with artists – including Alberto Giacometti and Wifredo Lam – right up until the point where they become potential rivals.

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Picasso’s fraught relationships with his wives and girlfriends also feature across the exhibition. There’s work by painter and surrealist photographer Dora Maar, as well as artist Françoise Gilot. And about halfway through, there’s a telling trilogy of paintings. In the centre is Figures at the Seaside (1931), an energetic and somewhat lecherous image, thought to be inspired by Picasso’s relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter, who he met when she was 17. To the left is Reclining Woman (1932). “Marie-Thérèse, the new lover,” explains Ottinger. And on the right there’s Woman with a Stylus (1931), a small, violent and disturbing painting depicting a female figure hovering over a bleeding man with a needle. This is thought to be a depiction of Picasso’s then-wife Olga Khokhlova – a far cry from Portrait of Olga in an Armchair (1918), a warm portrait where she stares steadily towards the viewer, beautiful and dotted with colour.

Portrait of Olga in an armchair (Portrait d’Olga dans un fauteuil) spring 1918.
Portrait of Olga in an Armchair (Portrait d’Olga dans un fauteuil) – 1918. Photograph: Musée national Picasso-Paris

At the core of this exhibition is influence, and how Picasso borrowed and learned from others. “He’s not adopting the style of someone else, it’s often more of a subtle connection,” says Wallace. Even so, some artists didn’t love being a source of inspiration; when he heard Picasso was visiting, sculptor Constantin Brâncuși “would hide his sculptures so that Picasso wouldn’t see them,” she explains. “He would take ideas … and then do something quite original with it. That was the kind of annoying thing. It wasn’t just imitation – it was like borrowing, transforming and sometimes improving.”

Displaying his paintings, sculptures and ceramics alongside works by the artists who surrounded him over the course of his life, we see how Picasso’s jealousy, cruelty, genius and generosity is all tied together. “He was not … an easy personality,” says Wallace.

“This is a man who is interested by new ways of making art. Novelty, innovation is something absolutely important for him. He never repeats himself. He opens a door, he goes deep in the room, sees each and every corner, then back to another door,” says Ottinger. “That’s Picasso.”

  • The Picasso Century is open at the NGV until 9 October


Elizabeth Flux

The GuardianTramp

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