At the Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi until September is the Arab world's first public exhibition of works by Pablo Picasso. Borrowed from the collection at the Musée National Picasso in Paris, the retrospective show features examples of all styles and periods and features 186 paintings, sculptures and works on paper.
I have not really through about Picasso for years. The fact that I can still visualize most of the well known pieces from various periods has resulted in a smug assumption of familiarity that almost meant I didn't bother going to this show. This would have been criminal because this show was an absolute revelation. Seeing such a range of work mostly unfamiliar to me was like seeing a completely different artist and given my own accumulation of years the way in which I perceived the work was also completely different.
The show was hung in chronological order starting with a blue self-portrait from 1901. Most of this early work was figurative including several studies on paper for ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’. There is perhaps a compositional shadow of Van Gogh in the earthy 'Landscape with Two Figures from 1908 and a sculptural influence is already evident especially in a small triptych of three very solid looking heads.
The next section loosely covered the 1920s. The paintings got larger and were mostly of figures in various poses and settings including two unfinished portraits in conventional style, which seemed to have been abandoned half way through. A sense of boredom with these kinds of conventions was reflected in other figures that seemed to become gradually chunkier and more imposing. The most interesting was ‘Seated Woman’ from 1920 which appeared to have started off with at least some classical intentions but by the end the hands and feet were grossly exaggerated and distorted and suddenly the suggestion of a radical change was there. This was also the case with 'Reading the Letter' from 1921. I then went back and looked at the hands and feet of all the other figures finally concluding that an additional motivation for immersion in the joys of human abstraction was because Picasso wasn't very good at painting hands and feet.
The next section covering the 1930s had a huge mix of seated and abstracted female figures, which gradually become more angular as the decade progressed. This use of colour and style in this section were definitely the most familiar like 'Reading' from 1932 although I was amazed at just how much there was. The output in this period seemed to have been more prodigious than at any other time and one big surprise for me was that he seemed to spend the entirety of 1931 doing bronze sculptures of large and distorted heads with hugely exaggerated noses. I had no idea so much of this work existed.
One of the exceptions to all studies of sitting, standing, reclining and general other women was 'Bullfight: Death of a Female Toreador' from 1933. The dramatic and sensual intertwining of bullfighter, horse and bull with a violent end assured for at least one of them was probably the most powerful picture in the show.
Perhaps understandably, there was not much work here from the 1940s. The rate seems to slow down dramatically, the colours turn darker, the motifs spikier and several skulls also make an appearance.
The next surprise was ‘Massacre in Korea’ from 1951, its dramatic impact, enhanced by a compositional layout seemingly borrowed from Manet’s “The execution of Maximillian”. The ubiquitously reproduced image of Guernica has so defined Picasso in relation to war that it was fascinating to see an image referencing a different conflict.
There was not so much work from the 50s and 60s either but what was there suggested a revisitation and amalgamation of the past with some homages – one to Manet and possibly one to Matisse. There was also a one picture with abstracted though explicit female genitalia which I am surprised made it past the censors!
One of the final pieces was 'The Young Painter' from 1972 and the childlike simplicity of this painting is a marked contrast to the rest of the show. It's directness makes a big emotional impact and it was hard not to wonder if this was Picasso revisiting a very early version of himself. Apparently it was painted only a few months before his death in 1973 so I guess it is a very appropriate image to end with.