The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and the Columbus Museum of Art have joined together on an exhibition of Pablo Picasso’s work that offers new insight into his artistic production and networks during and after the Great War. In particular, the exhibit focuses on the turn towards classicism evinced in some of the artist’s work at the time, a seeming repudiation of cubism. The exhibit seeks to account for personal and political factors that may have led to this turn, and ultimately attempts to demonstrate that Picasso experimented with classicism during and after the Great War not because he was rejecting cubism, but because he was aiming to exploit a productive tension between the two modes as well as searching for a way to respond to the European crisis.
Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation, and Changeis the first exhibit ever to look at the artist in the context of the First World War. It was inspired by the substantial collections of Picasso’s work held by the two institutions, and shaped by the curatorial vision of Simonetta Fraquelli in collaboration with other specialists of twentieth-century European art, many of whom, such as Kenneth Silver, Elizabeth Cowling, Dominique H. Vasseur, and Ann Bremner, also contributed to the very impressive catalogue. (Bremner’s catalogue notes are especially valuable.) Works are included from the collections at the Barnes and in Columbus, but the bulk of the exhibition consists of many pieces on loan from collections around the world, including the Musée Picasso in Paris, the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, and the Museo Picasso Málaga, as well as a number of private collections. In addition to over 60 works by Picasso including paintings, drawings, and his sets and costumes for the 1917 Ballets Russes production of Parade, the exhibition features works by others in cubist circles: Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Jacques Lipchitz, Juan Gris, and Georges Braque. Placing Picasso’s art in conversation with this network shows very effectively that cubism was in [End Page 677]no way monolithic, taking many forms over the course of the 1910s and 1920s. We can thus set Picasso’s own artistic shifts and experiments during this period within the context of those of his contemporaries and collaborators.
Viewers at the Barnes in Philadelphia experienced the exhibit in the Roberts Gallery, a moderate-sized exhibition space off the museum’s atrium, separate from the galleries housing the permanent collection and reserved for special, limited-run shows such as this one. Upon entering the gallery, viewers encountered a placard detailing Fraquelli’s thesis for Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation, and Change. The exhibition argues for a historicizing of Picasso, and for a situating of his artistic ambivalence toward the avant-garde and its movements within a political context. This view of Picasso and his contemporaries raises larger questions of what place the avant-garde, and artistic responses to war, might have in cultural life during wartime. By attempting to offer some insight into how an artist’s own politics—or lack thereof—might influence his work, the exhibit insists that aesthetic form cannot exist in a vacuum, and that choices made regarding color, line, and form reverberate through and respond to external forces of politics and nation.
One of the goals of the exhibition is to push against the idea that Picasso’s move “rightward” in style was also a move “rightward” in politics, though, as Silver points out in his catalogue essay, Picasso does articulate a patriotic, pro-France stance in his art and diaries, some of which might be attributed to the fact that his friends, such as Guillaume Apollinaire, were fighting. A video, “Cubism Under Attack,” which plays on a loop in a small gallery off the main arterial, argues that the threat to avant-garde artists in France from nationalists during World War One was quite real...