Bryan R. Monte
AQ32 Autumn 2021 Art Review
Picasso & Giacometti? You Decide
Picasso-Giacometti, Museum Voorlinden, Wassenaar, the Netherlands, 16 October 2021 to 13 February 2022
A must-see this winter is the Picasso-Giacometti exhibition at Museum Voorlinden in Wassenaar, the Netherlands, through 13 February 2022. The thesis of this exhibition is that Pablo Picasso and Alberto Giacometti had a lifelong influence on each other’s art after their meeting in Paris in 1922. The exhibition tries to prove its point due to the direct comparison of the two men’s painting and sculptures through their realistic, cubist, surrealist and again realistic periods sometimes side by side in its seven galleries. Did they influence each other in their sculpture and painting? Yes, at least during the 1920s and ’30s. Was this influence lifelong? I’m not sure. However, I’m not an art historian, so I can only offer a layman’s opinion. You can visit the exhibition, take in its generous selection of sculptures and paintings, and form your own opinion.
According to museum director Suzanne Swarts, the Picasso-Giacometti exhibition is organized historically and thematically into similar eras. Each gallery has work by the two artists, sometimes side-by-side, to prove the exhibition’s point of the two artists’ life-long influence on each other. It’s a formula followed in Paris and Doha, and now Wassenaar, just outside of The Hague, this travelling exhibition’s third stop.
The exhibition begins with two self-portraits of the artists at the same age but of course from different years: Giacometti from 1920 using Cézannesque, late impressionist colour dabs (as if applied with a sponge, however, and not with Cézanne’s characteristic knifeblade-like application), and Picasso from 1902 in his famous Blue Period.
Published photographs of these two self-portraits don’t do them justice compared to what I viewed in the Voorlinden. In the place of the rich dabs of thick chestnut, brown head of hair and red-rosy dabs of the blush of life in his face and chest, photographs depict purplish-brown hair and pinkish skin on a much too light golden background for Giacometti. In other photographs, the colours for the facing portrait of Picasso were also not completely accurate—the background is often too dark, imposing, and even a bit overwhelming for the magisterial figure of Picasso, clothed in a dark coat which is buttoned up to his light orange-brown beard which clearly stands out from its background in the Voorlinden original. These facts alone make a visit to the museum essential and worthwhile.
However, in addition to seeing the correct colours, as a Voorlinden visitor you will be able to decide for yourself whether the two artists did have a life-long influence on each other. Every gallery contains work by the two men from the same time periods, artistic movements, with the same motifs or themes. Gallery 2 contains work from the 1910s and ’20s. As you enter this gallery, you will see sculptures by the two men in a line on a wide table. Giacometti’s begin on the left; Picasso’s begin on the right. At opposite ends, they show these men’s original figurative differences. When they meet in the middle, they show their abstract similarities.
Another subject in this gallery is the women in their life. For Giacometti that is a portrait of his sister, Ottilia (1920) a companion in size, style, and colouration to his self-portrait in Gallery 1.For Picasso that means paintings of the women who were his models and lovers. Behind the sculpture table are three paintings of models sitting in a chair, a common pose for Picasso. These are Portrait of Olga in an Armchair (1918), Reading (1920) Portrait of Olga with Fur Collar (1923). These, as Giacometti’s Ottilia portrait, are all figurative. Picasso’s cubist wood sculpture Mandolin and Clarinet (1913) is prominently displayed on the gallery’s right wall. At the opposite end of the gallery on the table is Giacometti’s wood sculpture Head of a Woman, Flora Mayo (1926). However, I don’t see a similarity since the perspective of the latter is still fairly traditional if not overly simplistic. The only similarity is that both sculptures are from wood. On the far-left wall, the last two items in gallery are two large cubist Picassos: Reading Boisgeloup (1932) and Portrait of Marie-Thérèsa (1937), which also do not seem to me to have Giacometti corollaries in the same gallery and are also from a different time period.
However, Gallery 3 does seem to have the most paintings and/or sculptures paired with common referents. Picasso’s wire and sheet metal sculpture Figure (1928) is similar with Giacometti’s Man (Apollo) 1929. Both are interested with line and the negative space between the lines, which creates the volumes for these sculptures. Giacometti’s famous painting Palace at 4 a.m. (1932) with its rectangular architectural lines does, in many ways, seem similar to Picasso’s Portrait of a Young Woman, (1928) a painting with a wiry sculpture of a woman reduced to a face, a vagina and a lower body basket on a beach, which also seems to be exploring this inside/outside structural contrast and tension. The facial shorthand Picasso’s cubist/surrealist Woman in a Red Arm Chair (1928) (with just two eyes, a mouth and teeth), is similar to Giacometti’s much more minimalistic Untitled (Head) (1926) drawn with one continuous line to represent the forehead, nose, mouth, and chin, reminding me of the early Neolithic sculptures.
Gallery 4 was somewhat of a revelation and is worth the price of admission. It was the first time I had viewed Giacometti’s The Nose (1947). Before I had only seen it in photographs, which do not do justice to the sculpture in this gallery. The sculpture creates a dialogue about space, being, and representation. Hanging in its cage, the elongated nose (perhaps a Pinocchian reference) sticks out of the sculpture’s black frame into the room, which even for a piece of figurative art, is a representation, not the thing itself. Perhaps René Margritte would have captioned it ‘Ceci n’est pas un nez’.
In this gallery are also paintings and sculptures by Picasso and Giacometti of death’s heads or memento mori. Giacometti’s Headskull (1934) plaster has a much more cubist interpretation compared to Picasso’s surprisingly round and more traditional sculpture Death’s Head (1943) in bronze and copper. Picasso’s paintings of death’s heads on display include Skull, Sea-Urchins and Lamp on Table (1946) oil on plywood, Goat’s Skull, Bottle and Candle (1952) oil on canvas, are drawn in greys with heavy black lines reminiscent of Guernica. However, these paintings vary from Giacometti’s Annette, (1952) which is more a realistic: a sort of frontal x-ray of a woman’s skull.
The next gallery, Gallery 5, was somewhat of a surprise: not for the art it held, but rather because the exhibition’s chronology seemed to backtrack one or two decades. The painting and sculptures in this gallery are from 1920s to 1930s. On the centre table are bronze sculptures of Giacometti and Picasso. However, they are not organized as in Gallery 2 with Giacometti starting on the left and Picasso on the right and meeting in the middle. There are just four, paired objects at the right end of the table: Picasso’s Knelling Bather, (1931), and Giacometti’s Reclining Woman Who Dreams, (1929), Picasso’s Head of a Woman (1931) and Giocametti’s Unpleasant Object (1931).
While the gallery guide tried to convince us of the similarity of styles of the first pair, all I could be certain of was that this table’s sculptures were made from the same material during the same period. While the first pair do describe reclining subjects, the second two certainly do not use the same perspective. Next, the Unpleasant Object is horn-like and fairly realistic, representing a curved penis. However, The Head of a Woman is from Picasso’s surrealist period when women are represented as blobby, non-realistic discombobulations. At the far left end of the table are two rather stiff cubist sculptures by Giacometti of two couples, the first Cubist 1, Couple 1926-27 is composed of two blocks leaning on each other, the taller one on the right. The next sculpture by Giacometti, The Couple, 1926, is in the style of two African masks next to each other, again with the one on the right taller than the other. There are no other sculptures from Picasso next to these two, although there is a cubist painting hanging on the wall just to the left by Picasso of The Lovers 1919 dedicated to Manet in large letters in the upper right. However, this is not one of Picasso’s African mask works which I feel would have been a much better choice.
The centre of Gallery 6 is taken by Giacometti’s busts of women, especially Annette, from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. Here Giacometti’s distinctive style of tall, thin, elongated sculptures with small heads finally comes through. On the walls, however, hang more of Picasso’s surrealistic paintings from the 1930s including Woman with a Blue Hat and Head of a Woman, (both 1939). In this gallery, I can find no common ground between the two men. In Gallery 7 are Giacometti’s striking, archetypical Tall Woman and Walking Man II (both 1960) and other hyper-elongated sculptures from his last period. Across from them in the gallery are Picasso’s six sculptures of The Bathers (1956). Although these are also tall and thin, they are considerably squarer and reminiscent to me of railway signalling apparatus compared to Giacometti’s tall, elegant, stately figures.
Further chronological and stylistic discontinuities in this gallery are two Picasso paintings The Shadow (1930) and Jacqueline with her Hands Crossed (1953) both of which I found a stretch (pun intended) next to Giacometti’s elongated sculptures. The first painting clearly exhibits Picasso’s surrealistic traits from decades before, while the second portrait includes a long, wide, thick Pez neck not found in Giacometti’s elegantly thin work of this period.
To strengthen the exhibition’s chronological/thematic organization, I would suggest that the first five galleries should have been arranged 1, 2, 5, 3, 4. Further, Picasso’s cubist sculpture Mandolin and Clarinet (1913) could have been hung in Gallery 5 opposite Giacometti’s Couples sculptures. In addition, Picasso’s Portrait of Dora Mar (1937), Woman with a Blue Hat, Royan, 3 October 1939 (1939), Head of a Woman (1939) and The Shadow (1930) seem out of place in across from Giacomett’s line of elongated sculptures of women from the 1950s and ’60s. These paintings should be hung in a 1930s gallery such as Gallery 3 or 4.
All in all, despite my criticism of the placement of some of these works and the exhibitions thesis of the life-long artistic and stylistic bond between Giacometti and Picasso to which I do not subscribe, this exhibition still is well-worth a visit due to the number of Giacometti’s and Picasso’s paintings and sculptures on display. I would suggest that you see this exhibition, enjoy the art of these two masters, and make up your own mind.