The title of the Yale University Art Gallery’s “Picasso and the Allure of Language” has an off-putting 20th-century feel to it. It must be the way the word “language” is used (as a self-contained entity, rather than as a specification, like in “the language of politics”) that calls forth all those tiresome debates — ubiquitous for most of the 1900s — surrounding topics like phenomenology, structuralism, literary theory and, of course, deconstruction. While there is certainly something “alluring” about intellectual and artistic considerations of language, one is justified in possessing a sense of caution when the word crops up in titles: “Language” might be synonymous with all that is pretentious, modernist, self-consciously difficult, alienating and passé.
While “Picasso” generally succeeds at sticking to a more narrowly defined understanding of “language” than what might be feared — taking it to mean, simply, “letters and words” — there remains a slippery use of the term that causes some concern about whether all the pieces in the exhibition belong to the same puzzle. A topic as broad and overwhelming as “language” — as universal, you might say, as “life” or “world” — is a knife too blunt with which to carve from the work of an artist as prolific and famous as Pablo Picasso. The question becomes: Where do you draw the line (so to speak)?
Case in point is the most famous piece in the exhibition, “First Steps,” a cubist portrait of a mother guiding a toddler through its clumsy initial attempt at walking. Painted in 1943, “First Steps” is owned by the Gallery and erstwhile displayed on the museum’s Modern and Contemporary floor, where it takes its rightful place in the grand march from Impressionism to Cubism to Nothing-ism. In “Picasso,” however, “First Steps” hovers ominously on a bare brick wall in the rear of the gallery, strikingly out of tune with the exhibition’s array of minor paintings, illustrations, lithographs and manuscripts. Furthermore, there are no clear representations of either letters or words in “First Steps,” and the exhibition’s attempt to remedy this absence with an early newsprint oil sketch called “Study of Feet” comes off as a bit of stretch.
“Picasso” makes the most sense as an exhibition about language in its section called “Conversations” — a cool blue corridor in the center of the gallery that focuses on the artist’s relationship and correspondence with contemporaries such as Guillaume Apollinaire and Max Jacob. Numerous photographs, letters, postcards and other ephemera, many of which were provided by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, highlight the large extent to which Picasso was involved in the Parisian literary milieu of his time, and there are memorable treasures, particularly several frontispiece portraits Picasso made for his friends’ books.
For better or for worse, Gertrude Stein features prominently in the “Conversations” section, though Picasso’s famous portrait of her resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A 1934 recording of Stein’s poem “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso” can be heard by pushing a button, though anyone so inclined to do so should show caution. The poem is a fair representative of the kind of verbal vomit that has become Stein’s unfortunate legacy as a poet, with lines that read, “He he he he and he and he and and he and he and he and and as and as he and as he and he.” Visitors call forth Stein’s recitation at their peril.
Elsewhere in the exhibit, though, Picasso’s innovative work as an illustrator will be quite a discovery for even some of his most ardent fans. A touch screen computer allows visitors to digitally flip the pages of Reverdy’s handwritten “Le chant des morts,” to which Picasso added abstract, primitive-looking red splotches that reinvent the concept of illustration. And in the “Fictions” section, witness the artist’s delicate and suggestive illustrations of a 1930 French translation of Ovid’s “Les Metamorphoses.”
“Picasso and the Allure of Language,” all told, is a breathtaking assortment of works by a master artist — breathtaking in more than one sense of the word. The exhibition is so broad, its parameters so loosely defined, that the Yale University Art Gallery should have thought twice before putting it up on the fourth floor of the museum. When viewed in its entirety, the exhibition hardly leaves its viewer with enough breath to escape.