Picasso at the Ackland

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Pablo Picasso once said, “I must keep on trying, just to keep the experiment going until I get tired of it all. Even if the last result is not necessarily the best, I stop when my interest in the problem wanes.”


Perhaps it is this enthusiasm for experimentation that makes Picasso so infinitely intriguing to modern audiences. While most known for his pioneering Cubist works, Picasso’s full oeuvre reflects an extraordinary diversity of artistic styles. He was an artistic alchemist, continuously testing the possibilities of form, abstraction, composition, and color.

As an extension of the recent PICASSO^3 exhibition (2 Jan – 8 March 2015), which presented works from the collection of Julian H. Robertson Jr., the Ackland has put many works by Picasso from its own collection on view. Stretching over decades and media, these pieces invite comparison and conversation about this incredibly versatile artist.

In the European and American Art 1890-1950 gallery on the first floor hangs an example of Picasso’s work in clay, a medium the artist turned to late in his life. While we don’t often think of Picasso as a potter (even his 1998 blockbuster Museum of Modern Art retrospective ignored his ceramics), these works today constitute an import part of Picasso’s body of work. An earthenware plate overlaid with an uncomplicated centaur design, this piece reflects the simplicity and domesticity of his postwar life in the south of France.[1]

Upstairs in the Study Gallery, eleven works on paper by Picasso are also on view through March 29, 2015.  Picasso was a master printmaker, and he would often explore themes first in his prints before developing them further in his paintings.[2] “Printmaking gives us the feeling that for Picasso it was a kind of day-by-day diary, telling us about his deepest emotions, his brooding desire, suffering, separation, fear of old age and death,” wrote Dominique Dupuis-Labbé. It through his prints we see Picasso at his most intimate. [3]

 Bull-headed Sphinx, 1934

Taken together, these pieces speak also to the artist’s fluency in multiple visual languages. Consider two prints on view that both feature a Minotaur. The Black Bull (1947), is starkly minimalist, distilling the bull’s form to its most simplistic form. By comparison, Bull-headed Sphinx (1934) from the Vollard Suite, ripples with incised detail and emotion. An amalgamation of the Oedipus and Theseus stories, the work confirms Picasso’s considerable skill with the engraver’s tool.[4]

Luncheon on the Grass, 1961In the same way that Bull-headed Sphinx appropriates classical mythology, Picasso often drew inspiration from the history of art as well. His Luncheon on the Grass (1961) is intended as a surreal interpretation of Manet’s 1863 proto-impressionistic masterpiece. Here, Picasso digests Manet’s composition and makes it his own, juxtaposing elements of unornamented geometry, like the man with the cane, with highly detailed and organic abstraction, like the female nude bathing in the river on the right. Ever the experimenter, Picasso created multiple versions of this composition in both print and paint.

So much more could be said about Picasso and his art, and pieces featured here are just a small sampling of what is on view right now. I invite you to visit the Ackland and discover these works for yourself!

Phillip Cox is a junior art history and advertising major, and an undergraduate intern at the Ackland Art Museum. 

Images by Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973) from the collection of the Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:
Centaur, 1956; white earthenware plate. Gift in honor of Carolyn P. Young, 2010.64.
The Black Bull, 1947; lithograph. Gift of W. P. Jacocks, 58.2.158.
Bull-headed Sphinx, BB from Vollard Suite, 1934; etching. Ackland Fund, 63.33.1.
Luncheon on the Grass, 1961; linocut. Given in honor of John E. Larson, Esq., by Brenda and Evan Turner, 79.76.1.

[1] Jed Morse. Return to Earth: Ceramic Sculpture of Fontana, Melotti, Miró, Noguchi, and Picasso 1943-1963. Dallas, TX: Nasher Sculpture Center, 2013. 185-7.

[2] Harry S. Parker III, preface to Picasso the Printmaker: Graphics from the Marina Picasso Collection by Brigitte Baer. Dallas, Tex.: Dallas Museum of Art, 1983. 3.

[3] Dominique Dupuis-Labbé, preface to Picasso the Engraver: Selections from the Musée Picasso, Paris by Brigitte Baer. New York, N.Y.: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997. 8.

[4] Parker, 94.