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Picasso & Degas side by side

Exhibit at Clark demonstrates Spanish artist’s obsession with older French master

Saturday, June 26, 2010
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“Portrait of Sebastià Junyer i Vidal,” from 1903, by Pablo Picasso, is part of “Picasso Looks at Degas: at The Clark in Williamstown, Mass., through Sept. 12.
“Portrait of Sebastià Junyer i Vidal,” from 1903, by Pablo Picasso, is part of “Picasso Looks at Degas: at The Clark in Williamstown, Mass., through Sept. 12.

In 1904, when 23-year-old Pablo Picasso left sunny Barcelona and set up his studio in the grand city of Paris, the renowned French artist Edgar Degas lived only a few streets away. For more than a decade, the bold young Spaniard and the distinguished bearded gentleman, knew each other’s artwork and probably passed each other in the street.

But did they really know each other?

“We haven’t found yet any evidence of an actual meeting. . . . We never got them talking across a cafe table,” says Richard Kendall, an Impressionist art scholar and curator at large at the Clark Art Institute.

Although Picasso’s life and work have probably been studied more than any artist in history, few scholars have probed his relationship with Degas. Now, after five years of research, Kendall and Elizabeth Cowling, a Picasso expert from Scotland’s Edinburgh University, have uncovered evidence showing that Picasso had a lifelong obsession with Degas.

“Degas was one of Picasso’s many influences, but his influence has been underestimated. He felt a strong sense of affinity with Degas, a strong sense of communion,” Kendall says.

‘Picasso Looks at Degas’

WHERE: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, South Street, Williamstown, Mass.

WHEN: Through Sept. 12. Museum open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday in June, and open daily in July and August

HOW MUCH: $15 admission and free for college students, children under age 18 and active members of the military and their families

RELATED EVENTS: Lectures, gallery talks, art workshops, films and other events focusing on Picasso and Degas scheduled in June, July and August

MORE INFO: (413) 458-2303 or clarkart.edu

Curated by Kendall and Cowling, “Picasso Looks at Degas” is this summer’s big exhibit at the Clark Art Institute. The Clark is the only U.S. venue for the show, which travels in the fall to the Museu Picasso in Barcelona.

Hype for exhibit

With more than 100 works borrowed from more than three dozen American and European museums as well as Picasso’s grandchildren, the exhibit in the Berkshires promises to be an international art event. Harper’s Bazaar, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe have all heralded “Picasso Looks at Degas” as one of this summer’s must-see exhibits. Kendall and Cowling compare the artists’ works side-by-side in pairs and in groups that have never been presented before. In some Degas-Picasso couplings, there is no doubt that Picasso was responding to Degas, says Cowling, but in others, “we are sticking our necks out.”

The foundation for the Picasso-Degas connection is cemented on the first-floor of the Clark, in a gallery labeled “Early Years” that compares the two men as young artists.

“Both went to art school, and both were very, very good at it,” says Kendall.

Early portraits by Degas and Picasso show similarities in their choice of unglamorous subjects and unconventional poses and attitudes.

But it’s upstairs, in four themed sections, that the ground-breaking exhibit roars to life.

‘Even more in your face’

During an early June press tour, Kendall could hardly suppress his excitement as he led reporters to Degas’ iconic “In a Cafe (L’Absinthe)” (1875-76) and Picasso’s “Portrait of Sebastia Junyer i Vidal” (1903).

“This is one of the great moments in the show. I can’t believe they are in the Clark,” he exclaimed.

When Degas painted “In a Cafe,” the painting was scorned. The common-looking man and woman were considered scandalous and immoral, a prostitute and an alcoholic.

Picasso’s painting is bigger and “even more in your face,” says Kendall. “There’s no argument about it. Picasso was looking at this picture and saying ‘I have to make it my own.’ ”

On a nearby wall, another of these “great moments” electrifies the viewer, as Picasso’s “Woman Ironing,” desperately bleak and El Greco-like, hangs next to Degas’ light-infused painting of the same title.

The next gallery, “Women: Their Private World,” oozes Degas, with its images of nude females stepping out of bathtubs and grooming their long tresses oblivious of the viewer, as if we are voyeurs.

“Woman Combing Her Hair” (1896-99), an unorthodox, fiercely drawn charcoal and pastel drawing is “brutal and experimental,” says Kendall, but Degas signed it as a finished work.

Attracted to the daring Degas and his controversial images of the non-idealized woman, Picasso took up the subject of “La Toilette” in 1906.

“He is not interested in ‘safe’ Degas, it’s dangerous Degas that he likes,” says Kendall.

Cabaret singers, prostitutes, female nudes and dancers were subjects for both artists, but they also shared other attributes.

“Both are experimental, intuitive and great draftsmen,” says Cowling.

Kendall and Cowling also paired objects that they couldn’t link together, like the sculptures of pregnant women by both artists.

“We don’t know if they are connected,” says Kendall. But like Degas, Picasso used found objects in his sculpture: The round belly of his woman is fashioned from a ceramic bowl, her breasts from milk jars.

No journal for either

Picasso’s life spanned nearly a century, he died in 1973 at age 91, but the small, muscular artist rarely spoke in-depth about his work. Degas, who was known for his scathing critiques of other artists’ works was “extraordinarily witty and could be revolting and obscene,” Kendall says, but like Picasso, didn’t keep a journal.

For the Clark’s faithful and its dance aficionados, there is “The Ballet: Homage and Humor” room, where the museum’s own Degas sculpture “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen,” greets us at the entrance.

When Degas created it, using a real dress, shoes and wig of real hair, critics were appalled.

“This girl was clearly heading to a life of prostitution,” says Kendall, and, in the late 1800s, represented “a modern urban depravity.”

On the wall behind the beloved bronze hang two Picasso paintings, “Standing Nude” (1907), a sharply geometric painting, and “The Dwarf” (1901), a garish painting of a female vaudevillian.

In both Picassos, the figures’ feet and arms imitate the ballet pose of “Little Dancer,” the curators point out. “The Dwarf” is also the exact height of “Little Dancer.”

“It’s a controversial moment in the show,” says Kendall. “Some people are going to hate it, some people are going to love it.”

Deep into the ballet room, we discover family photos of Picasso with his first wife, Olga Khokhlova, a Russian ballet dancer he married in 1918, and more intriguing sculpture duos.

The last gallery, filled with startling images of prostitutes, brothels and madams, is the exhibit’s “glorious finale,” says Kendall, “a clinching argument” for their proposal that Picasso couldn’t stop thinking about Degas, even when the Spaniard was in his late 80s, more than a half-century after the French artist’s death.

From 1958 to 1960, Picasso acquired several of Degas’ “brothel monotypes.”

While Degas was reportedly celibate, asexual or possibly homosexual, the Parisian brothels were a favorite subject. These are soft, shadowy portraits, perhaps even sympathetic images of the women, who appear sad or bored as they wait for customers.

Picasso’s drawings, his responses to these works, are brazen, humorous, mocking and somewhat obscene, although the most explicit of the monotypes are not part of the exhibit. Degas’ name is in many of the titles, and in each etching, Picasso inserts a caricature of Degas: peering at the women through a wall, lost in a sexual fantasy or seeming to recoil from the women as they tempt him.

“Degas was the ideal alter ego in this final phase of Picasso’s life,” Cowling writes in the catalog. “Degas was literally beside him as he contemplated his own mortality.”

 
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