Photography by Rebecca Eastment.
“Good artists borrow, great artists steal,” said Picasso. And he should know. The little Spanish master ransacked the whole of art history, recycling and transforming famous images as he rampaged his way to greatness, writes our art critic, Malcolm Storer.
A perfect example of this is now the subject of a major exhibition just opened at the Palazzo Reale (royal palace) in Milan. With more than 200 works, the show explores Picasso’s interest in mythology and ancient art in all its varying forms. Statuary, ceramics, vases and reliefs sit side by side with works by the Spanish artist, giving the viewer a fascinating insight into his Magpie-like creative process.
Picasso was a born explorer and risk taker. From his early Blue and Rose Periods — with their mournful and deeply moving blues, burnt oranges and soft fuchsia pinks — he went on to invent Cubism, which then led to his Classicism phase, the roots of which can be traced back to his many summers spent in the South of France. This is the period explored by this marvellous exhibition, highlighting his multifaceted genius.
In one room the curators have cleverly juxtaposed a classical statue of a reclining women with a large portrait of Picasso’s teenage muse Marie Therese Walter. Whereas the statue is fixed and rigid, Picasso’s painting is all sensuous curves and flowing lines. It’s Picasso’s nod to the artists of the past. Seeing them placed together in this way, sitting slightly apart, adds a third dimension, the dimension of experiencing the evolution of art through time.
In another room the walls are hung with fresco-like depictions of Bacchanalian savagery. It’s hard to tell which are by Picasso and which are works from the past. Again, Picasso is both building upon and acknowledging his debt to ancient Greek masters like Apelles and Zeuxis, whose fresco of a bunch of grapes was so real birds flew down to peck at them.
Another of Picasso’s obsessions was the Minotaur, the potent half man, half bull symbol of Greek mythology. The well-know womaniser saw himself as the embodiment of this powerful creature, dominating and abusing his many wives and lovers. There’s a famous story of him standing in front of his masterpiece Guernica while two of his lovers, Dora Marr and Marie Therese Walter, had a viscous fight to see who would win his affection. Picasso was said to have stood by and watched with an amused expression. This dark facet of his personality is exposed by beautifully crafted depictions of himself as the Minotaur partying hard among Classical temples and ancient groves.
If you’re going to just one exhibition this year, make sure it’s this one.
Picasso Metamorphosis runs from 18 October 2018 to 17 February 2019.