Ancient Greece, a steady influence in the unique art of Pablo Picasso

The drive with which artists during the first part of the 20th century explored a new visual territory which drastically broke away from tradition led a great number of them to look to distant cultures and the ancient past for inspiration. The culture and myths of ancient Greece had, of course, been a recurring theme in the history and allegorical painting of academic, Western art but the ways in which these themes reemerged in the art of 20th century was under a completely different light, far removed from the moral, didactic ends of the art of the past. «Pablo Picasso and Ancient Greece,» an exhibition that opened a week ago at the Museum of Contemporary Art of the Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation on Andros, illustrates this connection between Greek antiquity and modern art in the work of one of 20th century’s most legendary figures. Part of the Cultural Olympiad activities, organized in collaboration with the Musee Picasso in Paris and jointly curated by Kyriakos Koutsomallis, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, and Jean Clair, director of the Musee Picasso, the exhibition shows a delightful and rare selection of Picasso’s works – sculptures, paintings, ceramics and etchings, all from the Musee Picasso – from his student years through the mid-1950s and places several of them next to ancient Greek artifacts (borrowed from the National Archaeological Museum) to clearly show the visual connection. Although Picasso never visited Greece, he had studied ancient Greek art both through his visits to the Louvre during his student years and via Roman art, which he saw when he visited Italy for the first time in 1917 with his friend Jean Cocteau. Visual references to antiquity begin to appear in the works of this period, also known as Picasso’s «classical period.» The statuesque nudes, the classical compositions, but also an interest in subject matter taken from mythology (for example, the series of drawings «Nessus and Dianeira» from 1920) prevail in Picasso’s works of the time and reflect the «rappel a l’ordre,» a term coined by Jean Cocteau in his book of the same name. The book became a reference point for the classical revival, which was also advocated by artists Andre Lhote and Rogger Bissiere. In the early 1920s, Jean Cocteau, a great influence on Picasso at the time, invited him to design the set for Sophocles’ «Antigone,» which was being staged in Paris with costumes by Coco Chanel. In the Andros exhibition, «La Source,» a drawing on canvas from 1921 which depicts a female figure clothed in an ancient Greek chiton and leaning against a rock with an amphora on her lap, is probably one of the most obvious examples of Picasso’s «classical period.» There are no traces of cubist language here nor in most of the other works, although interestingly enough, the broken planes in the painting «Femme a la Guitare» from 1924 resonate with a cubist composition on an otherwise «classical» image. In the same year, the publication of the surrealist manifesto and Picasso’s contact with Andre Breton gradually led Picasso away from classicism the next few years. It is probable that the first appearance of the Minotaur – a motif of heavy symbolism for the surrealists which was to become one of the most emblematic in Picasso’s subsequent works – in a collage that Picasso made in 1928 could be a sign of this direct surrealist influence. A few years later, Picasso drew the cover of the surrealist review «Minotaure,» published by Stratis Elefteriadis-Teriade and Albert Skira. Although Picasso never illustrated the full myth of the Minotaur, he was fascinated with the mythic creature’s symbolism of energy and virility, and is said to have often used the Minotaur as a portrait of himself and a reflection of events taken from his own life. In «Minotaur leading away a mare and her foal in a cart,» an ink drawing from 1936, and one of the most endearing images of the Minotaur, the analogy to Picasso’s life is evident: This was the year that Picasso fled to Juan-les-Pins with Marie-Therese and his newborn Maya. The work is included in the exhibition alongside etchings from the famed series of the «Minotauromachy» and the «Vollard Suite,» which was commissioned by the dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard in 1930. Anticipating the figure of the bull that was to appear in the famous «Guernica» painting, the Minotaur appears for the last time in the «The Death of a Monster,» a spare, moving drawing that Picasso painted in 1937, a few months before the artist started working on the epic «Guernica.» Also of the same period is «Grand Bather with Book,» one of the most impressive paintings included in the Andros exhibition and juxtaposed against a Cycladic figurine to show the similarity between the chalky painted figure and its geometric shape with ancient Cycladic sculpture. The exhibition continues to make the connection between the classical past and Picasso’s art through the postwar period. It includes «Man with a Sheep» from 1943, a monumental sculpture (apparently the only, free-standing sculpture of that scale that Picasso made) from 1943 whose theme evokes the ancient Moschoforos (calf-bearer). The connection between Picasso’s art and antiquity extends into the ceramics that Picasso made at his studio in Vallauris during the early 1950s. The similarity of the ceramics collection shown at the exhibition with ancient pottery, both in terms of shape and decorative motifs, is striking. It is a similarity that captures the strange blend of tradition and innovation that is at the core of 20th century modern art and imbues the work of Pablo Picasso, one of the greatest modern artists. At the Museum of Contemporary Art on Andros (tel 22820.22.444) through September 26.

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