Will the real Picasso please stand up?
In January, 1915, six months into World War I, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) shocked his contemporaries in the art world with a neoclassical-style drawing of his friend, the poet Max Jacob. Was this the same Picasso who was considered the leader of the Parisian avant-garde? The Picasso who, along with George Braque, invented cubism?
When his pencil drew texture of the subject’s sweater, the contours of the suit and surrounding interior, and the shading in the contours of Jacob’s face conveying a world-weary expression, one critic was incited to ask, “Which is the true Picasso?”
“Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change,” on view at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia through Monday, May 9, takes an in-depth look at the way Picasso went back and forth between styles between 1912 and 1924. It includes works by Picasso, as well as several by his contemporaries: artists Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, Braque, Diego Rivera (who was Picasso’s student in 1913), Jean Cocteau, and others.
In his experimentations in cubism Picasso employed materials and techniques such as adding sand to the paint, as well as decorative patterns, to give texture to juxtaposed flat and three-dimensional forms. But as tension developed between Paris and Germany in the lead up to the First World War, cubism, associated with the German enemy, provoked outrage as conservative French leaders considered its fragmented forms barbaric and unpatriotic.
“A radical shift occurred in Picasso’s work,” says curator Simonetta Fraquelli, a specialist in early 20th-century European art who has published numerous essays on Picasso and lives in Italy. “Following seven years of refining the visual language of cubism, he began to introduce elements of naturalism into his work.”
Many of Picasso’s peers considered this a betrayal of the avant-garde. The “high priest of cubism,” as Barnes executive director Thomas Collins refers to him, may have been trying to show his French patriotism by drawing and painting in the classical tradition. In a letter to poet and critic Andre Salmon, a close friend who had enlisted in 1914, Picasso expresses solidarity with the French war effort. Other friends, from Braque to avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire, had also deployed.
Born in Malaga in the Andalusion region of Spain, Picasso was the son of a painter and professor who began giving lessons to Pablo when he was 7. His father’s pedagogy stipulated learning by copying the masters and drawing the body from plaster casts and live models.
In 1895, when Picasso was 14, he moved with his family to Barcelona and won acceptance into the School of Fine Arts, but as a young student he rejected the strict rules and formalities, skipping class in order to roam the streets and draw city scenes.
Two years later, at 16, Picasso moved to Madrid to attend the Royal Academy of San Fernando, but again found the school’s focus restraining. At 19 he moved to Paris and met writer/artist Max Jacob with whom he shared an apartment. Jacob was a mentor to the young artist.
Between 1907 and 1908, while living in the Bateau-Lavoir, a decrepit building in Paris’s Montmartre district, Picasso met Braque and the two developed their radical new style, reconfiguring objects and bodies as angular intersecting planes. In 1912 Picasso began experimenting with collage, inserting chair caning, newspaper, sheet music, and patterned wallpaper.
Cubism was introduced in the U.S. in 1913 at the Armory Show in New York City. This wholesale rejection of the traditions of Western painting, in which the illusion of depth and three-dimensionality became fractured space, catapulted Picasso to the forefront of the Parisian avant-garde.
Three small watercolors, painted between 1915 and 1916, show figures rendered in cubist forms, exemplifying his love of pattern and form. One figure wears a black-and-white checkered suit, displaced in planes; the planes of a guitar player overlap planes of spotted wallpaper. The patterns and overlapping shapes echo the collages. He is moving away from the monochromatic tones and faceted shapes of his earlier cubist works.
Even while re-introducing naturalistic elements into his drawings Picasso was producing ambitious cubist oil paintings. “What becomes evident when looking at Picasso’s work between 1914 and 1924 is that his two artistic styles are not antithetical; on the contrary, each informs the other, to the degree that the metamorphosis from one style to the other is so natural for the artist that occasionally they occur in the same works of art,” says Fraquelli.
Picasso met novelist, poet, playwright, illustrator, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau in 1915. While on leave from the Allied Forces’ volunteer ambulance corps, Cocteau borrowed his mother’s Kodak and spent a few days photographing friends, among them composer Erik Satie, Jacob, Modigliani, and Picasso.
These candid snapshots depict the playful nature of their friendship. We see Picasso holding out a hand, surrounded by his colleagues, as if he is the director. In another, his mouth grips a pipe, his head encircled by smoke. We see a debonair Max Jacob, in top hat and bow tie, whereas Picasso seems more casual, with light colored trousers and a dark jacket, a tie and hounds-tooth checked cap (the pattern evoking the harlequins of his paintings). The pipe is again gripped by his full lips. In another, Picasso raises his fisted hands in animated conversation with Modigliani and Salmon.
It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship for Cocteau and Picasso. The day these photos were made, Cocteau later recounted, “in the middle of the street, between the Rotonde and the Dome. I asked Picasso to do ‘Parade,’” a new ballet to be performed by Sergei Diaghilev’s celebrated Ballets Russes. It was Picasso’s first project for the theater.
“Parade” tells the story of a group of entertainers outside a circus tent trying to attract an audience to come inside and see the show. The avant-garde collaboration featured a libretto by Cocteau and music by Satie (the score called for a foghorn, a typewriter, clanging milk bottles, and a pistol). Picasso designed the costumes and set for “Parade,” as well as a stage curtain showing the performers sitting down to a meal.
If only to be able to go back in time and see “Parade” … but wait, we can! It’s been re-created here at the Barnes (and for the record, at the opening at the Theatre du Chatelet, Paris, in 1917, the mix of cacophony, shocking costumes, and strange movements was met with boos and hisses, with some audience members crying “boche,” an offensive reference to Germans, dismissing the production as barbaric).
Here are four of the costumes Picasso designed (one is original, three are reproductions), the curtain and set elements, as well as a video re-enactment of “Parade.”
The costumes look like gigantic cubist paintings come to life. One wears a cubist cityscape, another is a harlequin, yet another uses a walking stick and holds a pipe. Even a horse’s head is rendered in shapes with right angles and piano key teeth. “Parade” is considered the ultimate fusion of cubist and classical forms.
It was through his involvement with Ballets Russes that Picasso, his celebrity on the rise, began mixing with wealthy socialites and art patrons, meeting his first wife, Ukrainian-born ballerina Olga Khokhlova. Married in 1918, the Picassos moved to a luxe address, hired household staff, hosted dinners, and attended costume balls — Picassos’ bohemian days were over as Olga set out to separate him from “raffish” associates.
There is a drawing of Olga, executed in the same style as the drawing of Max Jacob. Before marrying her he painted a classical portrait of Olga in a Spanish mantilla, perhaps as a way of introducing her to his family in Spain.
In 1917 and after, Picasso created contour drawings, with little to no shading, of Jacob and himself, as well as a harlequin (his alter ego). In 1920 his line drawing of a reclining nude resembles the female figures we associate with him, with broad facial features and large hands and feet.
While Picasso may have avoided themes of combat during the first World War, among his greatest legacies is “Guernica,” painted during World War II and considered one of the most well known paintings about the violence of war.
After viewing this special exhibition, be sure to visit the 46 Picassos that are part of the permanent collection at the Barnes.
Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change, the Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia. Through Monday, May 9, Wednesday through Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., collection and exhibition, $15 to $29; exhibition only, $14. 215-278-7000 or www.barnesfoundation.org.