‘Picasso and Paper’ Review – Royal Academy

25th January — 13rd April 2020
Standard Ticket - £22
Student Ticket - £18

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Walking into the RA’s new show ‘Picasso and Paper’, one is immediately facing La Vie (1903), an oil on canvas. It’s not quite the opening piece one would imagine for an exhibition about Picasso’s relationship with paper but nevertheless it’s a striking start. Definitive of grief, it is steeped in shades of blue, bodies curling into one another and symbolist elements. Beside the painting, however, are a series of studies for La Vie and it becomes clear that this exhibit is, in many ways, a loving ode to studies and sketches.

Pablo Picasso,Violin, Paris, autumn 1912. Laid paper, wallpaper, newspaper, wove wrapping paper and glazed black wove paper, cut and pasted onto cardboard, pencil, charcoal. 65 x 50 cm. Musée national Picasso-Paris. Pablo Picasso gift in lieu, 1979. MP367. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / Mathieu Rabeau. © Succession Picasso/DACS 2019. Image courtesy of RA's website.

We are immediately sprung into Picasso’s early work and in ‘Blue Period: 1890- 1904’ the walls are a stunning, deep navy to match. If 1890 is where the Blue Period starts, then Picasso is nine. Picasso’s relationship with paper starts early: two delicate cut-outs, Dog and Dove, are the earliest pieces in the collection. Picasso, born in Malaga in 1881, moved to Barcelona at the age of fourteen, and then later Paris, in pursuit of an artistic career. One of the fundamental events that brought about his Blue Period was the suicide of his friend, Carles Casagemas, which brought about a preoccupation with grief and melancholy that so deeply defines the art in this period.

The collection is already overwhelming, one room in. What strikes me most particularly, and consistently, is Picasso’s ability to express light upon the body. Sometimes it is rendered incredibly drastic with chiaroscuro-like contrast, but in other instances the light seems to melt into shade, the line of light indistinguishable from its cheek bone. This is a theme throughout: Picasso has a terrific ability to render both the exact, individual hairs laying across the frame of a woman’s face, and the abstract: large, fluid motions which seem to be thrown across the page.

Pablo Picasso,Head of a Woman, Mougins, 4 December 1962. Pencil on cut and folded wove paper from an album sheet. 42 x 26.5 cm. Musée national Picasso-Paris. Pablo Picasso gift in lieu, 1979. MP1850. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / Béatrice Hatala. © Succession Picasso/DACS 2019. Image courtesy of RA's website.

The whole collection drifts from period to period; 'Blue' becomes 'Rose', 'Rose' then becomes a room addressing the process of 'Les Demoiselles d’Avigon'. The thread that ties of all these rooms together is the opportunity to see studies for paintings, small form pieces, visual thoughts, transform into large scale paintings. A gouache sketch of his lover at the time, Fernande Olivier, becomes 1906 painting The Harem; there are consistent references to the work that produces the work; the fragments of the process that build a whole piece. There are iterations and re-iterations of drawings and the generative processes of a genius artistic mind are exposed to their most pared down features.

'Cubism, 1908-14', sees the introduction of different elements of artistic work: particularly experiments with new techniques such as papier collé, ‘pasted paper’, and collage, ‘an assemblage of disparate materials’. These are both representations of the very physical, malleable presence of paper and of a relationship with space. A particularly rife example of this is Guitar, 1912: a cardboard sculpture. It explores which mediums get to be included in the category of fine art and exemplifies that thread of constructing of a piece of work from other smaller, pieces. These smaller, contributory fragments are further exhibited in two large glass frames where fragments are suspended, floating in an expanse of space. These frames are in the middle of the room, meaning you’re able to walk around them and see these pieces of paper, the sketches, as whole entities. It is fascinating to see how pieces are stuck together - pins are like exoskeletons for the pieces of work.