Exhibit of the week: Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris

The Philadelphia Museum of Art's blockbuster show consists of more than 200 paintings, sculptures, and collages that thoroughly document the artistic ferment of the early 1900s.

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Through April 25

It seems as if 2010 will be the Year of Picasso, said Edward Sozanski in The Philadelphia Inquirer. A half-dozen museums on the East Coast are mounting shows dedicated to the modernist master. Kicking things off is this Philadelphia Museum of Art blockbuster, which covers the artist’s formative years in Paris. But “while Picasso is the headliner, he’s far from the whole story.” His works are accompanied by those of friends and rivals, as well as other contemporaries, such as Marc Chagall and Marcel Duchamp. More than 200 paintings, sculptures, and collages thoroughly document the unprecedented artistic ferment of the era, even if in some ways “the story it tells about the glory years of modern art is familiar.”

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Actually, not all museumgoers may be familiar with the early cubist canvases at this exhibition’s core, said Steve Siegel in the Allentown, Pa., Morning Call. Hardly crowd pleasers, these difficult paintings “are sparse, reductive, and surprisingly monochrome,” painted in a narrow range of grays and browns. Instead of showing an object from a single perspective, cubism represented many at once. Picasso and Georges Braque developed the style together, in a “remarkable burst of creativity” between 1908 and 1914, passing it back and forth “as if it were a secret language.” Soon, they pushed beyond painting into collage and sculpture. Only with this last shift did the “inherent playfulness” of Picasso’s genius reassert itself, as he began incorporating whimsical elements such as “polka dot patterns, faux marble effects, and humorous visual puns.”

Over the next decade, nearly every important artist in Paris would adopt the “pictorial language of cubism,” said John Jascoll in the Lancaster, Pa., Sunday News. Some, like Juan Gris, made it more accessible, by incorporating “easily recognizable images” into such works as Man in a Café. Others, including Duchamp, applied it to destabilize the human figure. Even American artists eventually caught on: The “brightly colored patterns, zigzags, and mottled swirls” of Charles Demuth’s Jazz (1921) gave the musical style visual form. Yet “the most striking work in the exhibition” is by—who else?—Picasso himself. Full of bright, interlocking patterns and elaborate lines and rectangles, Three Musicians shows the artist along with two compatriots from his early Paris days, Guillaume Apollinaire and Max Jacob. An homage to old friends, it’s also “a grand summation” of his cubist phase.

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