Updated: Sep 4, 2020
There have been some stand-out exhibitions at the Royal Academy in recent times (Gormley, Charles I and Lucian Freud spring to mind). Picasso and Paper is not one of them.
On paper, at least, it must have seemed like a sure-fire hit. Picasso ticks every box. Beyond famous, a constant fixture of the exhibition circuit, a dead white male. But therein lies the rub. How do you find something new to say about one of the world's most innovative and awe-inspiring artists? Is it possible to contextualise his works in an eye-opening or even critical manner? Should every piece he created be viewed in the same reverential light? The challenge for the curator is to find a new perspective upon an old master. On this occasion, in our opinion, they miss the mark.
Every exhibition needs a selling-point. Picasso and Paper chooses the medium on which he worked as its focus, or, as the panel in the final room puts it, 'Picasso's lifelong use of paper as an essential component in the creative process'. As a conceit this is paper-thin. I use paper every day on my trips to the bathroom. Other artists, one or two at least, occasionally experimented by working on paper. How remarkable (or, indeed, unremarkable) is Pablo Picasso's use of this medium?
The Achilles Heel to this approach is highlighted by the regular appearance of oil paintings and sculptures throughout the exhibition, 'to provide context and crucial points of reference' to the ones on paper and cardboard, as the opening blurb states. But has anyone else noticed that, in virtually every room, the principal work in one's eyeline as you enter through the door is not on paper, starting at the very beginning with La Vie (1903)? Is this a subconscious ploy introduced by the designer, or a tacit admission that the artworks on paper are, well, less impressive than their counterparts?
There are some good things in Picasso and Paper. The exit is one of them. Another is the stunning collage, Femmes á leur toilette, which dominates the middle of the show (it's also the major exception to the non-paper rule mentioned above). A third is the gripping documentary film Le Mystère Picasso (1955-56), directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, in which the artist is shown at work (the resulting pieces are displayed nearby). How often do we get to see the subject of any exhibition in their studio, their creative juices flowing? We are denied that opportunity with Rembrandt and Leonardo, but with Picasso we have the next best thing, and it's truly thrilling.
But, boy, are there hundreds of less dramatic pieces on display! It all becomes a bit of a slog. Maybe they were in competition to break the world record for showing as many items as possible in one exhibition. Fatigue sets in a good two-thirds of the way round. Quality not quantity is my dictum. Leave your audience wanting more, not wanting it to end more quickly.
The problem, I suspect, is that the key partner and lender, the Musée national Picasso in Paris, has literally stacks of drawings by the artist at their disposal, and they've done their utmost to put them all in this exhibition. Most of them are worthy but dull. Some grab your attention, such as the Minotaur series, Jacqueline in the Studio (1957), and Picasso's haunting self-portrait skull from the end of his life (1972). There are other highlights along the way, and the room devoted to 'Parade' is a notable success (the use of music is helpful here). The problem is, to put it bluntly, there are too many undistinguished artworks scattered around the more significant exhibits.
Could there have been a better, more engaging approach? It must be difficult curating a craftsman such as Picasso, given his cult-like status, and given that not a day passes (in the non-Covid world) when there isn't an exhibition somewhere celebrating his work. It might have been interesting to probe his domestic foibles, or to adopt a more biographical approach to explaining his artistic output. This was attempted, semi-successfully, in the British Museum's recent Edvard Munch exhibition (2019), and I wish there were more such exhibitions, in which the artwork is not effectively divorced from the artist. It's all a bit tiresome encountering artists such as Picasso, in which you learn by osmosis, as you read the labels, that they jumped from lover to lover and from tragedy to triumph throughout their life, and yet, by the end of the show, you never quite understand what made them tick, what were their motivations and stimulations. This is dealt with in passing in Picasso and Paper, and I wish it had been brought to the fore.
A couple more criticisms before I end. The leaflet handed out to members, providing a glossary on the words used to describe different paper techniques, while at the same time failing to provide any guide to the layout of the exhibition, is awful, a waste of paper. How ironic. And the text of the panels, like the selection of the items and the overall theme, is deeply uninspiring. With whom were they written in mind? The curatorial class, all-knowing, or the exhibition-going public, thirsting for knowledge? I fear the former. I would have preferred the latter. The exhibition book is beautifully illustrated and, unusually, is not filled with too many over-blown, long-winded essays. But I do hope that someone will seriously re-think the art catalogue genre, and instead produce a publication that can be consulted and cherished by everyone who visits, rather than being aimed at the experts and artistic elite.
One last note. It hasn't escaped our attention that the Royal Academy has cancelled its Angelica Kauffman show due to the Covid-19 pandemic. While we sympathise with every gallery and museum faced with such difficult decisons, we would register our regret that it was the female artist who was dropped, in favour of the ever-so-safe Picasso. (The same is true of the National Gallery, where Titian has won out, for the time being at least, over Artemisia, now delayed until 3 October.) Picasso and Paper may be pulling in the punters, but surely that's by virtue of putting on a show with such a famous name, combined with the lack of cultural opportunities on offer at present. As an exhibition, the experience is deflating, over-long, unimaginative. Not worth the paper.
Picasso and Paper is on at the Royal Academy of Arts until 2 August 2020
Julian Harrison for Cradles and Labels