Picasso and the jagged path of modern art

Three months ago Pope Benedict XVI hosted a gathering of artists from around the world under Michelangelo’s frescos in the Sistine Chapel. The event marked the 10th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s letter to artists and the 45th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s meeting with artists.

It was Paul VI who inaugurated the Vatican’s Collection of Modern Religious Art in 1973, which includes works by, among others, Pablo Picasso.

One of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Picasso continues to delight, challenge — and perhaps as often, frustrate — those who try to understand his work.

“The guy drives you crazy, in good and bad ways,” said Michael Taylor, Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Picasso and the Avast-Garden in Paris,” opened on Feb. 24. It runs through April 25.

As the critic Rebecca West noted more than 50 years ago, Picasso was “a superb craftsman when judged by the highest academic standards,” but he spent most of his life producing work “which is taken by the general public as proof that he cannot draw or paint at all.”

Picasso had the skill to be a 20th-century Rembrandt, but the Spanish-born artist instead took art in new directions.

The Philadelphia exhibit looks at the work he did in Paris from 1905-45, from his early experiments with abstraction, to his role in the development of Cubism, and his relationship with the Surrealists.

In describing the exhibit, Taylor stressed the importance of Cubism in the history of modern art.

“Cubism represented a seismic shift in the way visual artists depicted the world around them,” he said. “Forms were flattened, dissected and recomposed into various essential shapes and lines that were shown from multiple angles and viewpoints. No longer was pictorial fidelity to the natural world considered paramount to a painting’s success, as artists were now free to engage in a profound imaginative reordering of reality.”

The exhibit is drawn mostly from the museum’s own holdings and includes many works by Picasso’s contemporaries, such as Georges Braque, Marcel Duchamp, Joan Miró and Marc Chagall. The installation also includes a selection of photographic portraits of Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker and others, entitled “Americans in Paris,”

Those interested in religious themes will be most interested in the exhibit’s final gallery, “Death and Sacrifice.” It includes Picasso’s sculpture “Man with a Lamb,” which evokes the image of the Good Shepherd.

The gallery description notes that the themes of sacrifice and redemption addressed in “Man with a Lamb,” were also explored by Jacques Lipchitz, who used the image of an aged man performing a ritual sacrifice in “The Prayer” to express “the horror at the discovery of Nazi concentration camps. The artist later recalled that he had cried throughout the making of this work, which was his heartfelt prayer for the innocent victims of Hitler’s atrocities.”

The gallery includes a crucifixion entitled “Christ” by Georges Rouault, who Jacques Maritain, the French Catholic philosopher, once called “one of the greatest religious painters of our time.” Also on display is “The Crucifixion” by the Jewish artist Marc Chagall.

Chagall stresses Jesus’ Jewishness by replacing his traditional loincloth with a Jewish prayer shawl. A cockerel alludes to the sacrifice made by the crucified Christ to save humanity.

Some might find in the image an example of what Pope Benedict said artists should try to achieve. In addressing painters, sculptors, musicians and poets at the Vatican on Nov. 21, he said real beauty touches the soul, it wounds, it startles.

“It opens our eyes,” he continued, and “then we rediscover the joy of seeing, of being able to grasp the profound meaning of our existence, the mystery of which we are part; from this mystery we can draw fullness, happiness, the passion to engage with it every day.


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