This summer’s exhibition of work by Pablo Picasso, one of modernism’s brightest stars, explores the fact that the artist sometimes talked about his pictures as “exorcism paintings”.
Author André Malraux recorded a 1937 conversation with the artist in which he described being struck by a pivotal insight while viewing an exhibition of African art at the Trocadéro, Paris’s ethnographic museum, in 1907. Alone and surrounded by what were for him exotic artifacts, Picasso suddenly realized how important the African masks were as magical objects. He told Malraux how this realization fundamentally influenced his view of the role of the artist:
The [African] masks weren’t like other kinds of sculpture. Not at all. They were magical things. … They were weapons. To help people stop being dominated by spirits. … I understood why I was a painter. … ‘The Young Ladies of Avignon’ must have come to me that day, but not at all because of the forms: but because it was my first canvas of exorcism – yes, absolutely!
From Arcadian Bliss to Painted Exorcism revisits this decisive encounter with African sculpture, and at the same time examines how the artist’s practice moved back and forth between a mythological reality and the often-destructive intimacy of his own relationships. As a possible point of departure, the exhibition brings to the fore two paintings from the Moderna Museet’s collection, The Source (1921) and The Head (1929). Both works are familiar to the museum’s regular visitors, but few probably realize that – despite profound differences in form and style – these paintings are likely depictions of the same woman: Picasso’s first wife, Olga Khokhlova.
In The Source, Khokhlova reclines in an Arcadian landscape. Her body is draped with a white tunic in a way that recalls ancient Greece. So does the urn that rests under her arm, pouring forth its life-giving water into the timeless landscape that surrounds her. The painting is suffused with a mythological mysteriousness, and Khokhlova appears to be more goddess than mortal woman. In the The Head, painted eight years later, the open landscape has been replaced by a collection of fragmented details from an interior, and the model has been reduced to a two-dimensional and almost entirely abstract, jagged shape. Against the flesh-toned surface, which may well represent the skin of her face, two eyes emerge, stacked one atop the other. Dominating the picture however, is a long, vertical vagina dentata (toothed vagina), now constituting the subject’s most prominent feature.
How are we to understand this dramatic shift in language, and what does it say about Picasso as an artist? What does the Arcadian landscape represent in a painting like The Source, and what did Picasso mean when he compared the act of painting to exorcism?
These questions demand a more comprehensive discussion of the significance of Picasso’s many different methods and styles, and the exhibition is large enough to offer a relatively broad picture of his work. In addition to works from the Moderna Museet’s own collection, loans from Picasso’s family and private collectors will be shown. We are also very happy to present the works Baigneuses au ballon (1928) and Deux personnages (1939), that were recently donated to the museum in accordance with Elisabeth “Peggy” Bonnier’s will.
Ursula Mayer: The Lunch in Fur/Le Déjeuner en Fourrure
Guest starring in this summer’s Picasso exhibition are two contemporary artists, Lene Berg and Ursula Mayer. Mayer is currently being featured in an exhibition of her own, To What I Might Become, and contributes here with the film The Lunch in Fur/Le Déjeuner en Fourrure from 2008. The film presents a fictitious meeting between the artist Meret Oppenheim, the singer and dancer Joséphine Baker, and the photographer Dora Maar.
Screened within Pablo Picasso: From Arcadian Bliss to Painted Exorcism, the film will enter in direct dialogue with Picasso’s portraits of Dora Maar, and the presence of all three women – seemingly trapped in history amongst cannibalized memories and avant-garde objects – might subtly affect our perception of Picasso’s work.
Lene Berg: Stalin by Picasso or Portrait of Woman with Moustache
It has often been said that it was Dora Maar who got Picasso involved in politics. When they met she was a member of a group of left-wing activists called Contra-Attack, and she helped convince Picasso to join the French Communist Party in 1944. As a world famous artist and member of the party, he was asked to do a portrait of Stalin at the time of his death in 1953. The portrait was to be published on the front page of the communist newspaper Les Lettres françaises, and flanked by articles that praised the Soviet dictator in the most grandiose terms.
Lene Berg’s film Stalin by Picasso or Portrait of Woman with Moustache (2008) tells the story of this portrait, whose publication caused an unprecedented scandal. The film uses a kind of scrapbook aesthetic to convey how the highly politicized tactics of the cold war suddenly came to include unhinged discussions about what was art and what wasn’t, what kind of picture making was to be labeled as immoral, and what really qualified as realism. The film also develops into a tale of two of the many “great men” of history, how their paths crossed, and how the mass-media images of them continue to evolve with time and with shifting political ideologies.
Curator: Joa Ljungberg
With support from