Picasso as literature

Only a book illustrated by Pablo Picasso would depict the main character’s love interest as an abstract mess of cubist shapes.

“Picasso and the Allure of Language,” an exhibit opening at the Yale University Art Gallery today, explores Picasso’s relationship with writers and the different ways in which he re-imagined books, poetry and language in his work. The exhibition displays 70 Picasso paintings, illustrations, lithographs, sculptures and ceramics, all from the gallery’s collection, with the exception of two sculptures loaned from the Nasher Collection in Dallas. These are complemented by old manuscripts, poems and plays written by Picasso, as well as drawings, archival photographs and handwritten letters from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

The organization of the exhibition is thematic, rather than chronological. The four sections — Conversations, Fictions, Revisions and Inscriptions — focus on Picasso’s experimentation with language in different ways, using different styles and media. Conversations, for instance, focuses on his collaboration with writers like Gertrude Stein, Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire on cubist projects, while Revisions shows Picasso’s reworking of existing works by drawing on the margins of printed books or painting over finished paintings.

Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Susan Greenberg Fisher, who organized the exhibition, said she wanted to curate a Picasso exhibition but that her Fall 2006 seminar called “The Artist’s Studio: David to Picasso” inspired her to focus on Picasso’s relationship with language.

“For one of the assignments, students had to write about different Picasso works we had seen in class,” Fisher said. “Interestingly, all of them focused in some way on the influence of language and words and linguistics in his work, as opposed to biographical details.”

The work displayed at the exhibition includes Picasso’s illustrations for works by Aristophanes, Ovid and Balzac, in which he subverts the narrative through an anti-narrative of images, Fisher explained.

Also on display are famous paintings such as “First Steps” and “Seated Woman,” as well as Picasso’s calligraphic illuminations of Paul Reverdy’s poetry and lithographs of the artist in his studio with nude models.

Zelda Roland ’08, who took Fisher’s seminar and later helped organize the exhibition as well as contributed an essay on Picasso’s lithographs for the show’s catalogue, spoke about Fisher’s use of the gallery’s Picasso collection in class and her openness to students’ ideas about the artist’s work.

“I analyzed a lithograph depicting artist, easel and model, where the artist is drawn as a flat figure in constricted space such that he becomes the thing through which the sculptural and buxom models are filtered,” Roland said. “This is similar to the way the world is filtered through language.”

Mary Ann Caws, a professor at the City University of New York who specializes in 20th-century avant-garde poetry and art, said Picasso was a particularly revealing subject for an analysis of the relationship between artist and language. She collaborated with Fisher to create the catalogue about the “Picasso and the Allure of Language” exhibit.

“Dalí was also interested in writing — in fact some of his writing was fantastic — but the analysis of his relationship with writing can never be as fruitful and profound as an analysis of Picasso’s relationship with writing and writers,” Caws said.

“Picasso is the poet of painting,” she added.

The exhibition will be on display until May 24.

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