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Am I blue? The Blue Room (The Tub), Picasso, 1901.

Side By Side

By Nadine Wasserman

Picasso Looks At Degas

Clark Art Institute, through Sept. 12

At the turn of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso had finished his academic training and was at the very beginning of his lengthy and celebrated career. While living in Barcelona at the time, he was influenced by its Modernist milieu and by one of the city’s most prominent artists, Santiago Rusiñol. The exhibition Picasso vs. Rusiñol, currently on display at the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, is a fascinating study of Picasso’s relationship to Rusiñol, which began with admiration and ended with irreverence after the younger artist moved to Paris in 1904.

Similarly, the exhibition Picasso Looks At Degas explores Picasso’s fascination with an older artist; however, the exhibition makes clear that even though Picasso most likely never actually met Edgar Degas, the French artist was an extremely influential figure throughout Picasso’s career. While Rusiñol was only important to Picasso’s very early career, these two exhibitions in combination offer much insight into the trajectory of Picasso’s genius. And while Picasso Looks At Degas will travel to the Museu Picasso, Picasso vs. Rusiñol will not travel here—and so we are the poorer for it.

Picasso Looks At Degas is set up in several sections. Within each section works are grouped so that Picasso’s are side by side with Degas’. While this approach can at times feel cumbersome, as it leaves little room for individual interpretation, it does in fact definitively illustrate the thesis of the exhibition, especially where Picasso has directly referenced or responded to a particular work by Degas.

The first section, on the first floor, compares figurative work by each artist including human figure studies, portraits of family members and friends, and self portraits. The work in this section by Picasso was made before he had ever visited Paris and most likely had never seen a Degas first hand.

Upstairs begins with Picasso’s first visit to Paris in 1900. Works included in this section clearly show the influence of French artists. For example, Picasso’s Stuffed Shirts from 1900, a wonderfully satiric piece, is placed beside Degas’ Singers On Stage from 1877. The similarities of subject and style are clear but the influence of other artists such as Toulouse Lautrec is also evident. Other pairings in this section include Degas’ The Tub and Picasso’s The Blue Room (The Tub). In Picasso’s piece there are noticeable references to Degas’s work such as the round, flat tub. But there are also allusions to Monet and Lautrec. On the wall behind his bathing figure Picasso has rendered a landscape that resembles Monet and a poster that is clearly Lautrec’s. Picasso, however, infuses the piece with his signature blue color, one that harkens back to the influence of Barcelona and more specifically to artists like Rusiñol who used the color in his landscapes, portraits, and writings (as well as in his notorious home, Cau Ferat, in the city Sitges). It is in this section of the exhibition that Picasso’s versatility becomes evident, as he both copies and innovates simultaneously.

The next section of the exhibition focuses on works that fall under the heading “The private world of women.” Here there are a mixture of sculptures, works on paper, and paintings all depicting women bathing and combing their hair. The most interesting aspect of this section is the inspiration Picasso took throughout his career from Degas’ innovative style and subject matter. Picasso’s Nude Wringing Her Hair, an abstract figure in blue from 1952, is placed next to Degas’ predominantly red painting Combing The Hair (La Coiffure) from 1896. The bold colors and flat planes of both works are enhanced by their proximity to one another.

No exhibition of Degas would be complete without the inclusion of his ballet dancers. The ballet section opens with his signature Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, which caused quite a stir when first displayed in Paris in 1881. Praised for its realism and equally derided for its ugliness, it was the only Degas sculpture to be exhibited in his lifetime. Coincidently, at the time of Degas’ death, Picasso was working on stage and costume designs for Sergei Diaghilev’s Les Ballets Russes. At this time Picasso met and later married the dancer Olga Khokhlova who inspired his interest in classical ballet, and many of his works on this subject.

Picasso is often best when he is challenging and confrontational, and so the last section on “Brothel Scenes” is the most intriguing—despite the cramped feel of the gallery and a display that felt perfunctory and unceremonious. Given Degas’ probable influence on Picasso’s masterpiece Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, this section could have been far more prominent and engaging. Nonetheless, the works here show how Picasso was able to both pay tribute to and parody Degas in ways that are both droll and despondent.

Picasso Looks At Degas is an exhibition that should not be missed. The hefty catalogue that accompanies the exhibition is evidence that there is much still to be learned about both artists.

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