I blue? The Blue Room (The Tub), Picasso, 1901.
Looks At Degas
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.
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.
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.