Celebrating Five Decades of the Picasso-Industrial Complex

Two concurrent shows at Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and Museo Picasso Málaga appraising the artist’s legacy take a troubling tour through an ethical minefield

BY Max Andrews in Exhibition Reviews | 27 OCT 23

What else is there to know about Pablo Picasso 50 years after his death? Something, evidently. With the support of the French and Spanish governments, the Musée Picasso–Paris and the artist’s grandson and heir, Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, are marking the anniversary with a programme of some 50 exhibitions and events worldwide. ‘Picasso Sculptor. Matter and Body’ at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, and ‘The Echo of Picasso’ at the Museo Picasso Málaga are two of the more prominent exhibitions of this ‘Picasso Celebration 1973–2023’ series. But what exactly is being celebrated?

Spain’s cultural calendar often seems to orbit around such tribute numerology; whether that encompasses 2004’s ‘Dalí. Mass Culture’ exhibition at Barcelona’s CaixaForum as part of the centennial of the birth of Salvador Dalí, or the resuscitation of Antoni Tàpies with the centenary retrospective that tours to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía and the artist’s eponymous foundation next year. And while it might seem curious to toast a death, Picasso’s colossal reputation as the influencer-in-chief of modern art means this year is perhaps better understood as marking five decades of something akin to a Picasso-industrial complex.

Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso, Femme assise, un chat sur les genoux (Seated Woman with a Cat on her Knees), 1964, oil-modified paint on canvas, 146 × 89 cm. Courtesy: Fundación Almine y Bernard Ruiz-Picasso; photograph: Hugard & Vanoverschelde/© Succession Pablo Picasso, VEGAP

Co-organized with the Museo Picasso Málaga, where it originated, the Guggenheim exhibition explores Picasso’s sculptures of the human, especially female, form. Its conventional and broadly chronological structure tacks back-and-forth between personal biography and a narrative of technique, which shows Picasso’s three-dimensional works steadily evolving – or virulently mutating – in parallel with the places he welded, modelled, carved or assembled them. Above all though, it is an unwitting testament to the women and girls in his life. (Picasso’s other colossal reputation is as the misogynist who once declared to the artist Françoise Gilot, as she detailed in her memoir Life with Pablo (1964), that ‘every time I change wives I should burn the last one’.)

Pablo Picasso, Woman with Vase, 1931
Pablo Picasso, Woman with Vase, 1931. Courtesy: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

The exhibition’s overture is the startling Woman with Vase (1933), one of two bronze casts made in 1972-73 of a now-lost plaster original – the other sits on the artist’s tomb. All alone and immaculately illuminated, it is a monumental submissive figure of Picasso’s then-model and mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter. She greets us with an improbably extended right claw and a torso reduced to protuberances. Yet it is often his smaller works, doll-like in scale, that communicate with the greatest potency, and Picasso’s manipulations of plaster and wood that seem most capable of betraying his psychology.

Pablo, The Bathers, 1956
Pablo Picasso, 'The Bathers' series, 1956. Courtesy: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

While the cast version of the 1956 series ‘The Bathers’ (the original wooden assemblages were too delicate to travel to Spain from Staatsgalerie Stuttgart) appears like whimsical street furniture, the jaundiced plaster of the globular Bather (1931) and the precarious-looking Woman with Leaves (1934), a varnished early bricolage whose matchbox head is smooshed atop a corrugated leg stump, are extraordinarily fraught compositions of brittle fragments. The plaster Pregnant Woman (1959), which represents Gilot expectant with Picasso’s daughter Paloma, is finished with shellac, lending it a vulnerable and almost sadistically cadaverous pallor.

The focus on Picasso’s reverberations in contemporary art befits the commemoration of an end rather than a genesis.

At its opening, the exhibition’s curator Carmen Giménez neatly expressed her version of medium specificity: sculpture is difficult. And while she meant that paintings by contrast are usually more straightforward to make, move, store and display, it is the matter and bodies of the women Picasso thought of as muses – Gilot, Olga Khokhlova, Dora Maar, Fernande Olivier, Jacqueline Roque and Walter – rather than Picasso’s sculptures per se, that are the more indelible occupiers of this exhibition.

Pablo Picasso, Pregnant Woman
Pablo Picasso, Pregnant Woman, 1959. Courtesy: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Taking place in the city of Picasso’s birth, The Echo of Picasso is an altogether different affair, not only because it is dominated by painting and the generation of imagery. The exhibition’s focus on Picasso’s reverberations in contemporary art, rather than the oeuvre itself, undoubtedly befits the commemoration of an end rather than a genesis, yet curator Éric Troncy’s ‘dreamlike stroll’ past works by artists who have felt Picasso’s influence descends into a troubling tour through an ethical minefield, even without trolling from Picasso’s dubious persona. Organized in collaboration with Fundación Almine y Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, which here, as in Bilbao, lends a number of Picasso works, the exhibition also includes 54 other artists, nearly half of whom are represented by the eponymous owner of Almine Rech gallery, who – like her husband Ruiz-Picasso – is also a trustee of the museum.

Genieve Figgis, Downton Abbey, 2021
Genieve Figgis, Downton Abbey, 2021. Courtesy and photograph: the artist via @genievefiggis

A barely disguised gallery show (elements of which, under the same title and curator, will open shortly at Almine Rech’s two New York venues), its credibility is further sacrificed to a contrivance of painterly riffs, quoted motifs and contemporary twists, where the mere fact an artist uses colours, or the knowledge that Picasso watched television, seems justification enough to include works such as the studiously lurid Head first fall (2022) by Cristina de Miguel, or Genieve Figgis’s Downton Abbey (2022), a faux-naif portrait of characters from the titular snobs-and-servants costume drama.

Considering Picasso’s well-known relish for mythology – his works of the 1930s and ’40s are replete with satyrs and Minotaurs – the exhibition’s title contains a revealing etymological lapse. The tale of the young nymph Echo is one marked by deadening, subjugation and retribution. Condemned to only repeat the last words spoken by others, Echo was forever denied the capacity to articulate her own thoughts. An echo’s fate, conceivably like the Picasso Celebration itself, is that it can neither mean what it says, or say what it means.

'Picasso Sculptor. Matter and Body’ is at Guggenheim Museum Bilbao until 14 January 2024.

‘The Echo of Picasso’ is at Museo Picasso Málaga until 31 March 2024.

Main image: Pablo Picasso, Massacre en Corée (Massacre in Korea), 1951, oil on plywood, 1.1 × 2.1 m. Courtesy: Musée National Picasso-Paris; photograph: Mathieu Rabeau © Succession Pablo Picasso, VEGAP

Max Andrews is a writer, curator and co-founder of Latitudes, Barcelona, Spain.