Picasso and the Allure of Language
Nasher Museum of Art
Through Jan. 3, 2010

“Let me recite what history teaches. History teaches.” Gertrude Stein, from “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso,” her 1924 text portrait of the painter

Florence, 1996: Jenny Holzer projects the words “I Am Losing Time” against a stone wall at the edge of the sea. Los Angeles, 1974: Ed Ruscha paints in cherry juice on a linen canvas “He Didn’t Care and Neither Did She.” New York, 1989: Barbara Kruger silkscreens “Your Body Is a Battleground” in red and white graphic blocks against a vintage photograph, a black-and-white, half-positive half-negative exposure of a woman’s face.

Would you instinctively associate any of these works with the art of Pablo Picasso? Until I viewed Picasso and the Allure of Language at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke, I certainly wouldn’t have, either.

By focusing on the intellectual life of Picasso and the artists and writers who surrounded him, Picasso and the Allure of Language opens up a series of conceptual channels that re-establish connections between Picasso’s work and contemporary art practices. Given the vast scholarship and endless study that’s been devoted to Picasso, it’s astonishing to consider that Picasso and the Allure of Language is the first major exhibition to have focused on the importance of text and language in Picasso’s work. If you’ve ever wondered what a paradigm shift feels like, this show is for you.

The early-century think tank that was Gertrude Stein’s famous salon at 27 Rue de Fleurus and the gatherings at other storied Parisian meeting places were fueled by an almost-revolutionary zeal for change. Salon habitués strove for no less than a remaking of the art of the new century and to cast off the traditions of old. Salon regulars included poets and painters such as Guillaume Apollinaire, Georges Braque, Marie Laurencin, Henri Matisse, Pierre Reverdy, Jean Cocteau and Picasso.

The philosophical works of William James and Henri Bergson were widely discussed in these circles, giving way to a rethinking of the nature of perception. Energized by these questions, artists and writers sought ways to embody new ideas about time, duration and shifting perspectives in their respective forms. Painters were looking to language, poetry and text to influence their work, and writers were considering ways in which painterly ideas could be applied to literature. The catalog for the Nasher show serves as a vital companion to the exhibition, with lucid readings of individual works and illuminating historical context by a half dozen contributors, including Susan Greenberg Fisher, the exhibition’s curator.

Picasso and company’s impulse toward innovation was ignited by the surge in technological development that had been in progress since the early 1880s. Stephen Kern’s 1983 book The Culture of Time and Space: 1880–1918 outlines how radical developments in science and technology found expression in the philosophical and cultural works of that time. Echoes of these technological shifts are present throughout Picasso and the Allure of Language, evidencing the influence of machine-produced media such as film, photography, the comic strip, newspapers and posters and the new time-space experience of motorized transportation and air travel. Another overarching influence on these artists was the use of devastating new military technologies in World War I, which Kern details in a chapter titled “The Cubist War.”

The focus of this exhibition gives way to a kind of conceptual refraction. Seen through this lens, artworks shimmer with new meanings. “Guitar” (1912) is a spare graphite drawing on paper, a diagrammatic description of a guitar. The black marks on white paper can be seen as a form of writing or perhaps musical notationeach a form of code that corresponds with the production of sound. “Standing Nude” (1910) is a Cubist study in pen and ink. It can also be seen in terms of writing, as does, in effect, every black-on-white work in the exhibition. In “Standing Nude,” the broken-up planes of the figure require the viewer to “translate” the abstract components of the drawing into an imagined whole. The free-floating musical notation in a work like “Shells on a Piano” (1912) suggests the presence of a soundtrack that accompanies the visual world of the painting, a decidedly cinematic idea.

The exhibition contains several artworks by members of Picasso’s inner circle. Braque’s etching, “Bass” (1911), is one of the early introductions of letters and words in a Cubist work of art. The inclusion of text underscores the idea that words are a part of our visual field. Presenting text in a work of art is to transcend what James called “selective vision,” suggesting a new way of seeing, a way of acknowledging that words are as much a part of the visual world as flowers, fruit, a mountain or a human figure.

Picasso created “Dice, Packet of Cigarettes, and Visiting-Card” (1914), a mixed-media collage, after Stein and her companion Alice Toklas came to see him one day and, finding him gone, left their carte-de-visite on his door. Picasso took the card and incorporated it into a spare composition with both painterly and collage elements. Text is of course present in this composition, which serves as a tongue-in-cheek “portrait” of his friend and patron and her lover, prefiguring Stein’s text “portraits” by several years. Two painted dice play with the idea that Stein and Toklas were a “pair,” an acknowledgment of them as a couple. The pack of cigarettes provides a glimmer of 1960s pop and its glorification of the consumer product.

By focusing on language, this significant exhibition generates a new way of talking about and reading Picasso. Abstract lines and embellishments read as near-alphabets. The stylized shapes with which Picasso builds his pictures coalesce as a legible iconography. The relief figures of a white earthenware plate come across as a form of Braille. Given Picasso’s statement, quoted in the exhibition’s wall text, “I am the notebook,” indeed, his signature would seem to be enough to constitute a poem. A reproduction of Picasso’s “Study of Feet” (1943) calls as much attention to the newspaper upon which the study was done as to the chunky black painted lines of the study, which feel as indebted to comics as to painting. Picasso chose the sports section for this study, and if you look carefully you’ll see a crossword puzzle, a comic strip and a headline that contains the phrase “sans peur et sans reproche” (“without fear and without reproach”).

The centerpiece of the exhibition is Picasso’s illustrated book of Reverdy’s Le chant des morts (The Song of the Dead) (1948), an explosion of energetic simplicity, hand-scribed by Picasso and embellished with bold gestural orange markings that play in and among the margins, a rhythmic counterpoint to the text.

This past spring, the Gagosian Gallery in New York presented a show of late-period Picassos, which, according to critic Roberta Smith, would go a long way toward changing the perception of Picasso’s supposed post-Cubist decline. While the Gagosian show trafficked in visual richness, Picasso and the Allure of Language is an exhibition more of the mind than of the eye. With this exhibition, Picasso is relevant again. By gaining access to the conceptual underpinnings of his art, we can begin to recognize reverberations in work being produced today. It’s as if Miss Stein herself has invited us to her salon. The conversation continues.