Friday, June 4, 2010

Sunday at the Museum with Pablo

"Art is never finished, only abandoned."
~ Leonardo da Vinci

New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art is a place I have loved since I first began exploring it as a teenager in the 1960s. My high school was diagonally across the street, so I wandered in frequently, often several times a week. Admission was free then, at least for students, and the museum was largely empty of people and noise, a quiet cathedral of art. 

Today almost five million people — art lovers as well as tourists and students by the busload — visit the museum every year. According to its website, the museum's collections "include more than two million works of art spanning 5,000 years of world culture, from prehistory to the present and from every part of the globe." The Metropolitan Museum is also exceedingly large, covering two million square feet. 

Last Sunday, the day before Memorial Day, I spent the better part of five hours with the museum's expansive exhibition of nearly 500 works by Pablo Picasso. The collection ranges from his earliest work, like the 1900 self-portrait titled "Yo" (above right), which Picasso painted when he was just nineteen, to familiar paintings such as the 1905-06 portrait of Gertrude Stein below.

The museum's Picasso collection is rich in work from the artist's famous Blue Period, when he was consumed by the afflictions of the poor. The 1903 painting he called "Blind Man's Meal" (below) is a particularly haunting example.

Just a few years later, we see him begin to develop cubism in early work such as this 1907-08 "Standing Nude." 

And we see cubism more fully expressed in later work such as the 1911 drawing, "Still Life with Cruet Set."

The collection also includes a dazzling display Picasso's printmaking virtuosity — woodcuts, linocuts, lithographs, aquatints, etchings and more. The subjects are varied but as always, Picasso's sexual partners and appetites play a central role. Nowhere is this more vivid than in the room devoted to the "347 Suite."

Picasso created this series of 347 erotic prints between March and October 1968, when he was 87 years old. He had become fascinated by the 1499 Fernando de Roja novel La Célestine, about an aging procuress, and created the 347 Suite to illustrate it. This sugar-lift aquatint called "Las Meninas and Gentlemen in the Sierra" is one of the few I can show you here. The rest, while beautiful and delicate, are graphically sexual.

Two aspects of the 347 series fascinate me. One is the extraordinary creative energy of this man, who at age 87 could produce in just six months such an enormous body of work. The other is the way Pablo Picasso, a man well known for his voracious sexual appetites throughout life, channeled his yearnings into his work at a time when, as he confessed to friends, his body would no longer act on his desires.

Thirty blocks south of the Metropolitan, the Museum of Modern Art also has a current exhibition of Picasso's printmaking. The MoMA show, like so much of Picasso's work, is dominated by the women he loved and left. If you're in New York, try to see both.

"Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time."
~ Thomas Merton

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