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Picasso: Tableaux Magiques at Musée National Picasso, Paris

Pablo Picasso, Buste de femme avec autoportrait, février 1929. Huile sur toile, 71 x 60.5 cm. Courtesy Collection particulière, Courtesy McClain Gallery.

By JOSEPH NECHVATAL, November 2019

Picasso: Tableaux Magiques

Musée National Picasso (Paris)

October 1, 2019 - February 23, 2020

Walking into Musée Picasso’s Tableaux Magiques (Magic Paintings) is wandering into a wonderland of divination and automatism. A curbed but cavernous tour de force, the exhibit covers only the riveting, heavy gear-shifting years of Picasso’s early Surrealist experiments that sought to revolt against the constraints of the rational mind: the eclectic clamor and commotion of 1926 to 1930. Following his retour à l’ordre Neo-Classicism that began in 1917 following a trip to Italy—think of the fabulous “Two Women Running on the Beach” (1922)—the work in Tableaux Magiques is predictive and indicative of Picasso’s forthcoming, wacky, life-long Cubo-Surreal concoctions. 

Much of the flamboyant work in Tableaux Magiques is sloppy, inconsistent, and certainly eccentric, but soars with spiritualistic ambitions mixed with wracking self-doubt. The anatomy splattering works are popping with clever and radical visual proposals largely suggested to Picasso by what Europeans saw as the dissonant and indefinite qualities of African masks—a path the artist will follow to his grave (albeit haunted by the black whispers and female neighs that trigger a constant rolling thunder of qualms concerning the externalization of his exploitive creative-destructive convictions). Surrealism revived Picasso’s attraction to an illusory, dark, magical Africa that had also fueled the invention of Cubism. Highlighted here, and holding up the supernatural premise of the show, are the ritualistic-magical aspects of African Art (that meant to function communicatively in the spiritual field of the dead) that inspired Picasso and many others; including, previously, the divination prone Dadaists. Powerfully suggestive carved wood objects, like the exhibited large Nimba Mask from the Baga tribe in Guinea (from Picasso’s own collection) are what makes the suggestion that these Surreal paintings are somehow magical; as they are embedded with animistc beliefs and polytheistic and pantheistic properties. Omen aspects strongly inform (and compliment)—in the manner of similes in poetry at its most rapt—Surrealism’s automatic-revelatory modes of iconographic mark-making that echo the écriture automatique (automatic writing) method of André Breton and Philippe Soupault, who with it composed in 1919 Les Champs Magnétiques (The Magnetic Fields): the very first piece of Surreal literature. Yet Picasso had not joined the Surrealists in 1926; rather, they amalgamated him. Breton calling him “one of ours” in the fourth issue of Révolution surréaliste (1925), the same year Picasso exhibited his Cubist works at the first Surrealist group show, La Peinture Surrealiste, at Galerie Pierre in Paris.

Pablo Picasso, Femme endormie dans un fauteuil, 1927. Huile sur toile, 92 x 73 cm. Courtesy Yokohama Museum of Art.

In Tableaux Magiques, the 1926-27 notebook drawings are the most telling of how Picasso (rather late) is feeling his way into unfamiliar (if limited) fortuitous-based areas of art making associated with creative-destructive Dada/Surreal chance operations. The drawings “Figure with Raised Arms” (1926) and the two “Beheading Scenes” (both 1926) visually speak in an atonal symphonic rumble. There is an especially jittery, conflictual tension in the “Beheading Scenes” between the softness of human curves and spasmodic hard angles associated with supernatural jolts. Distinctions between dissonance and zoned-out trance are far from axiomatic, something that can make a beautiful black sculpture like “Seated Woman” (1929), and the drawing “Seated Woman in a Chair” (1926), look like a worn out whore still in possession of her sense of desperate poignancy that encompasses internal pain. With “Seated Woman in a Chair,” Picasso’s pencil wanders loosely over the paper without exerting much in the way of conscious control—so that a woozy image of a women centered by her vagina is formed without giving much apparent pre-thought or observation. All of these drawings clearly reveal that Picasso is taking up the spontaneous aspect of Andre Masson’s radical graphical automatism. So Picasso is following advanced chance-based artistic trends in 1926. Not breaking new trends. Already in 1924 Masson had created a visual analogy to the écriture automatique writing method—based on speed, chance, and intuition; but also a certain amount of reflection and artistic strategy—that Picasso is here using now that he has dumped the superficial and limpid descriptiveness of Neo-Classical paraphernalia. Picasso is uncomfortably digesting Masson’s more radical innovations of instability, and it is way too easy, given Picasso’s greater fame, to overlook the profound departure Masson’s automatic drawings represented: a visual metaphor for magical powers that also represent extreme states of (and for) imaginative minds. 

On pare with Joan Miró’s very loose Painting and Anti-Painting series (begun in 1927), Picasso has here only recently rejected the language of cool classicism for expressions of deranged agitation that threatens to ratchet up his art into riotous realms of libidinous hysteria. That same year of 1927, at 45 years old, Picasso started cheating on his wife, the ballet dancer Olga Khokhlova (with whom he had a son, Paulo) with Marie-Thérèse Walter, who was only 17 when they began having sex. This is artistically relevant only in that in the very loose, very wild, gray painting “Woman” (1927), female iconoclasm pours out at you, steaming up the place. 

Pablo Picasso, Figure, [été] 1927. Huile sur toile, 100 x 82 cm. Courtesy Musée national d’Art moderne - Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris Don de l’artiste, 1947. AM 2727 P. © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jacques Faujour. © Succession Picasso 2019

Also, a trance-like sexual languor queasily erupts in his delicate etching “Figure” (1927) that projects outlandish, non-directional, states of psychic sex energy along with new kinds of structures capable of suggesting scandalous gaiety, exuberance, jubilation, and risqué ecstasy. Given the conquistador image of Picasso during this period, we don’t usually associate failure with him, but it happened in 1927, when he presented a sculptural model called “Métamorphose” to the Committee of Apollinaire’s Friends, who in 1921 had commissioned him to design a monument to the poet (who had died in 1918). Picasso’s project was rejected—and then rejected again (with another maquettes)—in 1928. Yet during these years Picasso continued to create weird, anti-bourgeois paintings pounded out in semi-improvised outbursts in which raw fragments are hammered together. The Gorgon-faced “Figure” (1927), “Woman in an Armchair” (1927), “Figure” (1928), and “The Kiss” (1929) seem to operate as a stand in for a form of radical desire and an intensified sense of life. Bold demonstrations of gusto, such as “Sleeping Woman in an Armchair” (1927), undoubtedly convey the overdone male fantasy (but affective center) of such works that postulates the female body in mobile dream transport: the way out of the land of male disenchantment. Its goofiness ruthlessly leaves the gazebo gates of the libido open for multi-spectrums of mischief and caprice. 

Then comes the jolt of realization that what was supposed to be empowering and exciting for all was perhaps serving a more destructive sexual purpose for him alone, as the world now grapples with accounts of Picasso’s domineering abuses that sometimes involved asymmetrical dynamics of subjugation (the externalization of his creative-destructiveness). Yet the vagina dentate-like “Head of a Woman” (1927), the ravished “Woman in an Armchair [Figure]” (1927) and the “Female Bust with Self-Portrait” (February 1929) are more than macho-manic escapades and mythological thrillers that misuse women and African magical techniques of divination partaking in chaotic control/non-control. On comparing them to “Sleeper” (1927), “Arlequin” (May 1927), and “Head of a Lady” (January 1929) (for me, a woman wishing to weep, but where no tears will fall) a nimble range of complex emotions appears that extends from magnanimous melancholy, to wistful folly, to the frenzied rupture of uncompromising ferocity. Of sexual lassitude, even. 

Pablo Picasso, Arlequin, [mai] 1927. Huile sur toile, 81.3 x 65.1 cm. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls Collection, 1997.149.5. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image of the MMA. © Succession Picasso 2019

The African mask-like “Woman in Red Armchair” (April 5, 1929) is an intense and irreverent emancipation of nebulously unguided wishes for the pleasures of distinct female forms: the deterioration of the human organism in an effort to return art to a magical time before individuated life—or the nightmarish repetition of traumatic male material without resolution. Also nightmarish to consider: Picasso’s first batch of these 1926 paintings were stolen from the roof of his car on his way back to Paris from Juan-les-Pins.

Such shots of weird augury may be hard to register on our psyches at such a detached distance—but this exploratory phase of Picasso’s art takes us back to a more imaginative, more primal, more magical mind set where art truly matters. WM

Joseph Nechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into Noise was published by the University of Michigan Library's Scholarly Publishing Office in conjunction with the Open Humanities Press. He exhibited in Noise, a show based on his book, as part of the Venice Biennale 55, and is artistic director of the Minóy Punctum Book/CD project.

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