Picasso, Miró, Dalí. Giovani e arrabbiati: la nascita della modernità, Palazzo Strozzi, Firenze
The latest exhibition at the Strozzi Palace is a walk back through time to the roots of modern painting. It retells the sad tale of three “angry men” culminating in an alleged meeting between Dalí and Picasso in 1926. Barely twenty-two years old, Dalí had come to Paris with his mother and sister. Upon entering Picasso’s studio, he exclaimed: “Master, I just arrived in Paris and have come to see you before heading for the Louvre.” The episode completed a series of encounters between Miró, Dalí, and Picasso while each was striving to invent a new visual language by contemplating the work of the other two.
Having arranged the pictures in reverse chronological order, the curators demonstrate that post-Cézanne painting marks not only the end of Impressionism but, more importantly, the rebirth of Classicism. Picasso was the first to recognize this and Dalí the first to recognize that Picasso recognized this. The two Catalonians eventually parted ways, one following a cerebral path and the other the path of instinct. The difference between them is placed in greater relief by viewing their pictures in reverse sequence, showing that the authentic Picasso, the truly modern Picasso, is not the Cubist but the Classicist.
This was precisely how Dalí viewed him, and it was precisely why Dalí eventually rejected him. In his youth, he made little mention of Picasso until offering a decidedly new interpretation of the latter’s work. In what Alfred H. Barr termed “curvilinear Cubism,” Dalí saw a horizon opening onto the infinite possibilities of Surrealism. Although it is difficult to construct a clear chronology of Dalí’s early period, we can detect clear links to Classicism in two highly original works: Nude in the Water and Nude. The ambiguous girl-goddess-mother-prostitute figure in Venus and a Sailor: Homage to Salvat-Papasseit (1925) foretells the eroticism that would quickly become his trademark. After returning to Figueres, he produced a series of mythological paintings in which he tried to draw positive conclusions from his Cubist experience by—as he records in his diary—“linking its lessons on geometric order to the eternal principles of the tradition.” He thus opposed the “modernity” propagated by the Academy of San Fernando, for there “modernity” meant nothing but Impressionism.
The unsettling fusion of Classicism with a new, terrifying eroticism is charted in Cahier 7, the centerpiece of the Strozzi exhibition. These 120 preliminary sketches for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, begun in early 1907, are on display for the first time outside of Spain. They retrace the painstaking process by which Picasso developed ideas for a monumental canvas of nudes à la Paul Cézanne, whose retrospective at the Salon d’Automne in 1906 must have deeply affected Picasso. Yet he conceived something much more vicious and brutal than Cézanne could ever imagine.
As the drawings show, Picasso originally intended to include a sailor and a medical student in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. In several pages we see these two figures entering from the left, the latter carrying a skull, proof that the artist’s original conception was allegorical in scope. He ultimately excluded these and other Cézannian characteristics from the final painting. Only the figure squatting on the right is ostensibly Cézannian. It was taken from Three Bathers, a piece owned by Matisse at the time.
Though it sounds cliché, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon does mark a revolutionary turning point in modern painting. But not for the reasons usually given. Les Demoiselles is neither a spontaneous nor an unfinished work. The sheer volume of drawings contained in Cahier 7 demonstrates that it was the product of a long and careful deliberation. Contrary to popular opinion, its indebtedness to Cézanne and African art is minimal. This emerges from the painting’s startling departure from the drawings that preceded it. The nudes are much more violent and the pictorial technique much more radical. The canvass is less conspicuously “cubist” than the drawings, since Picasso shied away from representing multiple facets simultaneously and opted instead for brash frontal poses. Greater attention is given to the shape of the areas between figures and the delineation of their contours. It is clear from the drawings that Picasso always intended to depict the woman on the left in the act of pulling back a curtain, though in the end this detail is bereft of perspectival significance. Rather than creating an illusion of depth, it enhances the painting’s extreme shallowness. Although it is not clear from the drawings whether Picasso intended to convey a sense of restricted space, this feature looms large in his later work. The viewer gasps for air, finding it only where the ragged strips of white separate the picture’s various sections.
Cahier 7 affirms that Picasso never devoted his attention to the painting for hours at a time. He labored at it methodically over a span of approximately six months. The drawings give the impression that perhaps he expected too much from the canvass. It was never abandoned but certainly overwrought. His sketchbook reveals multiple stages of indecision followed by tentative solutions. The painting, more than the sketchbook, vaunts a new and alien style. No other painting by him was preceded by such an abundance of drawings, even though in the end he only loosely adhered to Cahier 7. As he plunged deeper into the painting, he had little choice but to eliminate the sailor and medical student, as well as the easily recognizable setting of a brothel, in order to achieve his evolving aims. These aims continued to evolve in the course of painting and even after he had finished. Picasso decided—perhaps unwisely—to overpaint the figures on the left based after his discovery of African sculpture in the fall of 1907. These mask-like features were absent from both the drawings and, as shown by x-ray analysis, the original painting. At a certain point, Picasso apparently decided not to continue the African remodelling of the other figures.
The drawings still leave many questions unanswered. Did Picasso plan a long involvement with the canvas from the start? How and when did he decide to relate the figures compositionally? Did the idea of an allegory gradually fade away, or did he never intend to take it seriously?
Whatever the case may be, fellow Parisian artists were perturbed by the anti-Cézannian thrust of Picasso’s creation. With Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the master rejected the avant-garde conventions found in Cézanne’s bathers and Matisse’s Joie de vivre. So much the better, since, as the exhibit goes on to show, Picasso probably judged the fame of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon ill-deserved and misrepresentative of Cubism’s true goals. Consequently, he spent the next several years reconsidering his art and avoiding the pitfalls of Surrealism.
This is what complicated his relationship with Miró, whom Picasso cherished as a close artistic companion over a period of three or four years. The mutual impetus they provided one another blossomed in the work of Miró, not in Picasso. Miró took on and mastered new motifs with ease. He freely adapted iconographical elements of a closed and linear type by broadening their context whenever appropriate. His use of Neolithic motifs was more successful than Picasso’s, and he borrowed more freely from Fauvism and Cubism. Whereas Picasso closed his compositional field as if viewing it through an aperture, Miró decentralized his compositions, giving them a sense of breadth and reducing the feeling that they were pre-constructed (a feeling increasingly conveyed by Picasso’s pictures).
This fine collection is imaginatively and intelligently arranged. Though difficult to follow, the reverse chronology is not contrived. It does serve a purpose. The title, on the other hand, is contrived. One would expect the theme of anger to arise at least periodically during the visit, yet it never does. I am usually dissuaded when psychological themes serve as reference points for gathering a group of pictures, but in this case I would have made an exception. I tend to think that anger has a lot to do with art of this period—especially Picasso’s—though I doubt whether understanding it would lead to greater esteem for the modernist legacy.