The Pablo Picasso that you’ll find at the Barnes’ upcoming exhibit, Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change, may not be the artist you are expecting. Curator Simonetta Fraquelli has stocked it with moments that laypeople may not be up on, like the section dedicated to costumes that he designed for the ballet Parade or the room of photos of Picasso hanging out with friends in Paris, snapped by legendary writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, who provided the ballet’s concept. Then there’s the exhibit’s focus, and the paradox it poses— Picasso played with both cubism and classicism during the First World War. What does that ping pong mean?
In 1917, Picasso was sliding into his mid-thirties and falling for soon-to-be-wife Olga Khokhlova, a Ballet Russe dancer he met working on Parade. He was switching his circle up to meet her high-society standards, leaving some of his bohemian friends and typical haunts behind. The cubism he co-founded had been derided by critics, and when war came, the media cast it as German and unpatriotic. Political cartoons and propaganda were filled with classical-style illustrations that were considered more French. (If it’s tough to see the connection, remember that the French have long been putting women in togas and giving them laurels, torches, swords and the like to convey ideals like honor and duty. Shout out to the Statue of Liberty.) As friends of his were drafted, Picasso, being Spanish, was not.
Were these mash-ups statements on the war? Was he trying out more comfortable traditions as he transitioned to older, married life? It’s Picasso, so there are a lot of fans and a list of theories. While Martha Lucy, a Barnes Foundation curator and its deputy director for education and public programs, cautions that she doesn’t “think there’s one answer,” she replies that deciphering it as bougie hubby mode is too simplistic a read.
“I look at it as Picasso not wanting to be put into a box,” she emphasizes. “Also classicism had been a style that was a associated with the right. I think he’s trying to rescue classicism from being [their] style. He loved classicism; he had worked in that mode before. He’s kind of bringing it back and showing that it can be avant garde, and doing it side by side with cubism, sometimes combining different styles together.”
Picasso wasn’t staunch about his politics at that time. Still, the exhibit says so much about identity. Fraquelli says the works speak to “how he saw himself in relation to France, to adopted country. He was him positioning himself in France at that particular time. Who better to look at than past French masters?”
We asked both Lucy and Fraquelli to share what pieces felt like coups when they found out they’d be able to include them— the kind of paintings where it would be hard to say when they’d be back in Philly again. Many of them did. Some have tight legal photo restrictions, so we couldn’t publish them. But here’s some of what they picked:
This painting, which belongs to the Musée Picasso Paris, shows the coming together of both cubist and classical styles in divided cells. Much of what’s on display in this exhibit isn’t so much 50/50 hybrids, but rather degrees of oscillation as Picasso swayed from one style to another. There are selections that are straight up classical, but look at the couple towards top left corner of this painting. They are figurative, but look how thickly shapen they are; see how the shadows carve their facial features. “It’s never fixed. You can see different gradations of it in different works,” says Fraquelli. “I think the two styles are playing off against each other. I don’t think he’s privileging one over the other. I think that he carries on painting a cubist style all the way through this period— it’s still relevant.”
There are several sketches, which Fraquelli loves, from the private collection of Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, Picasso’s grandson. This is just one, but many of them are like this: Faint, intimate and romantic.
The Parade costumes included are mostly reproductions; this is the sole original costume on display. It normally lives at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Fraquelli wasn’t sure this one would come through. Lucy is crazy about them: “I think it’s really fun to think about the fact that he wanted to make cubism be in motion, and to think about what a costume like this does to the human body. It really renders it illegible. Ballet is supposed to be about the body… and you get this total superimposing of this cubist thing onto the classical body. I think it’s fascinating.” The bulkiness of these costumes is famously constraining for dancers. Seeing the heavier pieces in person makes me hope Picasso bought a round for anyone who had to jeté in one of those.
Okay, I want to call this cubist. But the curves. It’s from 1924, the last year on display in this exhibit. Fraquelli considers it forward-gazing: “It’s starting to look a little more, if I can use the word, surrealist.”
The exhibit opens Sunday, February 21. The Barnes will offer guided tours daily; that schedule can be found here.