Painting of the Day

8 Dec

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Las Meninas (after Velazquez). By Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). Oil on canvas, 1957. Currently on view at the Guggenheim, NYC in the exhibition “Picasso Black and White” (on view until January 23rd, 2013).

Notes from guggenheim.org: 

During the summer of 1957, Picasso (who had become honorary director of the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid), turned the third floor of La Californie, his house in Cannes in the South of France, into a studio. While in this studio, from August 17 through December 30, 1957, he worked on a large series of fifty-eight canvases in near isolation, allowing few visitors to see his work. Forty-four of these canvases were directly inspired by Diego Velázquez’s masterpiece Las meninas (ca. 1656), which he had first seen as an adolescent at the Prado and used as a model for copying his jesters and dwarfs.

This horizontal painting, The Maids of Honor (Las Meninas, after Velázquez), is the first, largest, and most elaborate of the series, and is the most faithful to the vertical composition created by Velázquez. All of the figures from the old master’s canvas are present, playing the same roles and occupying similar positions. Investigating the complex spatial organization and figure grouping of Velázquez’s famous canvas, Picasso employs an effectual and fragmented black, gray, and white palette in order to provide structure to the space and its figures. Velázquez himself looms larger in Picasso’s version than in his own, an homage to the old master as creator, and holds two palettes rather than one, though neither canvas reveals what the artist is painting. While light floods into the room in Picasso’s version, the atmosphere is more muted in Velázquez’s original, and Picasso’s dog Lumb occupies the same territory as the seated Mastiff in the older Spaniard’s work. Picasso’s connection to Velázquez began as early as 1895 and recurred throughout his career in many guises, including the ballet Las Méninas. Created by Léonide Massine, with music by Gabriel Fauré and costumes by José María Sert, Las Meninas premiered at Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Rome in 1916, where Picasso would meet his future first wife, the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova.

Picasso donated his series in its entirety in 1968 to the Museu Picasso, Barcelona, in memory of his great friend and secretary Jaime Sabartés, who had recently died. By painting so many variations, he sought to understand the key elements of a work he so admired while also giving his Meninas a life of their own. Significantly, in the mid-1950s and early ‘60s he worked on other historical series inspired by the great masters of the past, in an effort perhaps to ensure his indelible place in art history.

About the exhibition:

Picasso Black and White is the first exhibition to explore the remarkable use of black and white throughout the Spanish artist’s prolific career. Claiming that color weakens, Pablo Picasso purged it from his work in order to highlight the formal structure and autonomy of form inherent in his art. His repeated minimal palette correlates to his obsessive interest in line and form, drawing, and monochromatic and tonal values, while developing a complex language of pictorial and sculptural signs. The recurrent motif of black, white, and gray is evident in his Blue and Rose periods, pioneering investigations into Cubism, neoclassical figurative paintings, and retorts to Surrealism. Even in his later works that depict the atrocities of war, allegorical still lifes, vivid interpretations of art-historical masterpieces, and his sensual canvases created during his twilight years, he continued to apply a reduction of color.

Picasso was born in Málaga, Spain, on October 25, 1881, to María Picasso López and José Ruiz Blasco. His father, a painter, art teacher, and curator, encouraged his son to become an artist after quickly realizing Picasso’s astonishing artistic gift. Following his studies in Spain, he settled in Paris and embarked on an extraordinary career to become the most influential figure in twentieth-century art.

Managing a complicated composition without having to organize contrasts of color, Picasso created such masterpieces as The Milliner’s Workshop (1926), The Charnel House (1944–45), and The Maids of Honor (Las Meninas, after Velázquez) (1957). The graphic quality of Picasso’s black-and-white works harks back to Paleolithic cave paintings created from charcoal and simple mineral pigments (Female Nude with Guitar, 1909), to the tradition of grisaille (Study for Sculpture of a Head [Marie-Thérèse], 1932), and to European drawing (Man with Pipe, 1923). Picasso used this distinctive motif to explore a centuries-long tradition of Spanish masters, such as El Greco, José de Ribera, Francisco de Zurbarán, Diego Velázquez, and Francisco de Goya, whose use of black and gray was predominant.

Picasso’s palette reveals the development of a unique working process, which he pursued until his death on April 8, 1973, in Mougins, France. His innovative works in black and white continue to influence artists today. This chronological survey, spanning 1904 to 1971, includes paintings, sculptures, and works on paper, all of which highlight the artist’s choice of black, white, and gray in lieu of color.

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My comments:

I find both of these paintings quite intriguing. It’s interesting that they identify the dog in Picasso’s painting as his own dog Lumb; they must have documentary evidence for that, because I’d be really surprised if they could identify that just from looking at the painting.

I wonder why Picasso chose to paint his version of Las Meninas in black and white. And in his reinterpretation of the painting, what was he trying to express? We know on a technical basis by looking at the very first, non-abstracted works by Picasso that he was technically (technique-wise) capable of painting a copy of Velazquez’s Las Meninas, but instead he chose to really reinvent the picture as we know it (I’m not suggesting he chose to paint it in a worse way; I completely reject that argument that the more a painting imitates what we see exactly the better it is). Was Picasso trying to, in an egoistical but perhaps very justified manner, connect himself with Velazquez in all his fame and glory? I’ve heard that there’s a contingent of art historians who call Velazquez’s Las Meninas literally the greatest painting ever created. Was Picasso trying to lay claim to that title himself? Whether he was or not, does he deserve it?

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One Response to “Painting of the Day”

  1. tara December 9, 2012 at 8:37 pm #

    Picasso is anti dwarf. went on a website that is very interesting in the way it analyses Velazquez painting. http://www.evl.uic.edu/chris/meninas

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