In Beirut, Picasso unfolds the essence of his family

"Culture is what is left when you have lost everything." This is no doubt one of the reasons why Lebanon’s famous dynamism is manifesting itself in culture and art––with replenished vigor––during these days of crisis. As evidence of this, the Sursock Museum is hosting an exceptional exhibition of around 20 works by the universally recognized master of modern art, Pablo Picasso, that will be on display until Jan. 6, 2020.  We offer a small guided tour.

A photo signed David Douglas Duncan showing Claude and Paloma playing with their father with a skipping rope in front of the "Baigneurs à la Garoupe", July 1957, Villa La Californie, Cannes. Photo Picasso National Museum-Paris

February 1917. Pablo Picasso begins his great tour of Italy. "This trip will be very important for the Spanish painter exiled in France since the beginning of the 20th century. He is 36 years old. He has already led his Cubist revolution, but he will deeply immerse himself as well in Italian art and that of the Mediterranean shores,” says Camille Frasca, art historian and project manager at the Picasso National Museum.

January 2017. To celebrate the centenary of this famous trip to Italy, the Picasso-Paris National Museum initiates a network of multidisciplinary and multifaceted programs with 70 cultural institutions from 10 countries around the Mediterranean, aiming to offer insight into the formation of the artist in the places that inspired him the most.

The exhibition “Picasso and the Family” is being held at the Sursock Museum until Jan. 6, 2020 as part of this international cultural event. The exhibition is being organized by teams from the British Museum and Paris Museum and contains 20 pieces by the master of modern art. The president of the Picasso-Paris National Museum, Laurent Le Bon, was in Beirut for the opening of the exhibition on Sept. 26.

The Beirut stop is “one of the highlights of Picasso-Mediterranean,” Le Bon said. “And that is not only because it closes the cycle of 47 exhibitions that have explored, in a new way, the different facets of the work of the Spanish master as well as the richness of its link with the Mediterranean, but also because the theme chosen here, Picasso and the family, corresponds well to the Lebanese spirit.”

"This Lebanese stopover is without a doubt extremely symbolic because if there is a place in the world where exchanges and crossroads of all types feed and nurture our daily lives, it is here, in Beirut," he added.

The event is unique in several ways: it is an artistic event of unprecedented scale in Lebanon, except for a Robin exhibition hosted by the Sursock in 1964. It is the product of impressive collaboration that included sponsorship and support from Danielle Edgar de Picciotto, Cyril Karaoglan and the Picasso-Paris National Museum. And, the works on display, for the most part, “came out for the first time from the reserves of the Picasso-Paris Museum and have not been shown before even in France,” said Camille Frasca, who co-curated the exhibition with Yasmine Chemali, the Sursock Museum’s head of collections.

Not pink, not blue and not cubist

From Picasso’s extensive and rich body of work, connoisseurs are mostly familiar with his pink, blue and cubist periods. In regards to the artist's personal life, there are many who have an image Picasso as an egocentric man, a destructive lover or even a sort of Minotaur in constant search of fresh flesh.

These clichés are a result of the many exhibitions that have focused on the different periods of his career and have often been presented in connection with the women who he had relationships with at different times in his life.

Picasso and the family does not focus on these stereotypical themes. "[It] does not include any canvas regarding these specific periods, apart from one drawing of the blue sea,” said Chemali.

An exceptional exhibition of around 20 pieces by the universally recognized master of modern art is being held in Beirut at the Sursock Museum until Jan. 6, 2020. We offer a small guided tour. Photo Michel Sayegh.

Instead, it highlights an intimate and especially profoundly humanist, and a mostly ignored, facet of the famous artist. This can be seen from the first work, which starts the chronological journey of the exhibition: an oil portrait from 1895 of a barefoot girl filled with melancholy and sensitivity signed Pablo Ruis (his paternal surname, which he used before choosing to use mother’s). Back then, Picasso was 14 years old and had just lost one of his sisters, who was stricken by diphtheria. The young girl in the painting, needy and sad-eyed, seems to be a subtle incarnation of the feeling of grief and deep loss that he was experiencing.

The theme of the family makes sense in Picasso’s work. In the exhibition there are many representations of the restricted and intimate circle that this word encompassed, such as a little sketch in ink and gouache on paper showing his mother and his sister needle pointing (1896). "We did not want to limit ourselves to the family nucleus as such, but rather to show the link that the family represented to him. Whether paternity, motherhood and fraternal love or the sensual, friendly and more broadly emotional connection,” the co-curators of the exhibition said.

The around 20 works on display range from the classic portrait mentioned above painted in Barcelona by a young Picasso, who early on demonstrated impressive mastery, to a large oil on canvas made in Mougins a few months before his death on April 8, 1973. The selection, exhibited on the first floor of the Sursock Museum, provides visitors an overview of the 77 years of creative work of this major artistic figure and initiator of so many artistic movements of the twentieth century.

The exhibit is a small retrospective built on a succession of pieces that depict the major milestones in the personal life of Pablo Picasso and his career, which was marked by a constant reinvention of his artistic vocabulary.

The classic and refined scenography (signed Jacques Aboukhaled) creates an itinerary that is divided into four periods. The first one entitled "Sources" introduces the visitor to the family universe of young Picasso up to his first marriage to Olga and the birth of his first son Paulo. The birth of his first child stimulated an interest in themes and forms related to motherhood in Picasso’s work; an exploration of the primeval sculptural references of the female body as an object of fertility and pleasure. This theme becomes more pronounced in the following section.

In the second part entitled "Tumultes", sculptures predominant. Inspired by Marie-Therese Walter, his mistress and mother of his second child Maya, they offer a variety of forms, from crude to delicate, while closely following his obsession with the roundness of the female body and the desire it arouses in him. A highlight of this section is a tiny masterpiece engraved in wood that wonderfully depicts the carnal fusion of a Couple (1930). Otherwise preoccupied by the events in Spain and the war in Europe, Picasso also expressed his anxieties in his art during the 1930s and 1940s, creating sometimes startling pieces like the dreadful Baiser (Kiss), from 1943, a small newspaper collage enhanced with ink showing the face of a monstrous man hugging a frightened newborn.

Painter’s and children’s games

After this dark passage, the exhibition leads to a room where Picasso’s more playful art is on display. Entitled "Jeux” (Games), this third part brings together paintings and sculptures from the 1940s and 1950s where images of the pregnant woman and of the mother playing with her children predominate. In one work from 1961, a woman with child is depicted through cut metal sheets, folded, assembled and painted with extraordinary warmth and expression. In these representations of a happy family, the influence of the childhood universe is felt through the spontaneity in the creation of Picasso, who once said: "At the age of 12, I drew like Raphael. It took me a lifetime to learn how to draw like a child.”

It is a beautiful expression that we cannot help but think about while admiring the final section of the exhibit, entitled "Familles Romanesques” (Romantic Families). Here, the curators chose a number of Picasso’s later works. In Mougins, where he retired at the end of the 1960s, Picasso continued to work on representations of couples, maternity and sexuality. These themes were related to family and filiation, which he developed throughout his life while standing out from the various artistic movements he created.

Pablo Picasso, "Le Peintre et l’Enfant”, Mougins, October 21, 1969. Oil on canvas, 130 x 195 cm. Picasso-Paris National Museum Dation Jacqueline Picasso, 1990. MP1990-36 © RMN-Grand Palais © Picasso Succession 2019

Picasso’s view on motherhood takes the form of pagan Madonnas; his portraits of couples oscillate between absolute crudity and affectionate signs of time in works like “L’Etreinte” (The Embrace) and “Homme et Femme” (Man and woman), and his representations of family pave the way for endless visions. His work during this period was inspired by his readings (such as a painting, titled family, with characters influenced by Balzac ) and his dreams, as an eternal painter and child. They are the work of a liberated Picasso, drawing his impression on canvass with the assurance and freedom of a musketeer pulling out his sword. This is the image that the last two paintings of the exhibition will bring to mind: “Le Peintre et l’Enfant” (The Painter and the Child), dated 1969, and “Mousquetaire et Enfant” (Musketeer and Child) from 1972. Clearly, it is an exhibition not to be missed!

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 1rst of October)

February 1917. Pablo Picasso begins his great tour of Italy. "This trip will be very important for the Spanish painter exiled in France since the beginning of the 20th century. He is 36 years old. He has already led his Cubist revolution, but he will deeply immerse himself as well in Italian art and that of the Mediterranean shores,” says Camille Frasca, art historian and project manager at the...