‘He was always sketching’: Even Picasso had to practise, practise

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New York: He was a giant of 20th-century art, but that doesn’t mean Pablo Picasso needed a big canvas.

Matchbook covers, postcards, restaurant napkins – they all served as makeshift sketchpads for the artist at moments of inspiration.

Picasso in Mougins, France, in 1966. Credit: Getty

And so it should perhaps not be surprising that some of Picasso’s actual sketchpads were well smaller than, say, a CD cover – like the one now on display at Manhattan’s Pace Gallery as part of Picasso: 14 Sketchbooks, a new exhibition marking 50 years since the legendary artist’s death.

A stunningly complete self-portrait in pencil peeks out of that little book, with deep and piercing eyes. It was 1918 and Picasso, then in his mid-30s, had just married ballet dancer Olga Khokhlova. During a summer in balmy Biarritz, he painted on canvas but also kept this tiny notebook around, filling it with scenes of their villa, the beach and the town, and sketches of upcoming paintings. He also drafted a letter to his wife’s doctor and listed addresses of friends.

The exhibit, which opened on Friday, is a collaboration with the Madrid foundation run by a grandson of Picasso’s, Bernard Ruiz-Picasso. It comes nearly 40 years after the gallery’s initial 1986 show of the artist’s sketchbooks, called Je Suis le Cahier (I am the Sketchbook) after a notation Picasso made on one of his pads – which subsequently toured the globe.

A 1918 self-portrait in pencil by Pablo Picasso in his 30s made in a small notebook.Credit: AP

The show comes at a busy time for Picasso developments. In New York this week, the artist’s famed 1932 Femme à la montre (Woman with a Watch), portraying his muse Marie-Thérèse Walter, sold for $US139.4 million ($219 million) at Sotheby’s on Wednesday evening, making it the second most valuable Picasso ever sold at auction.

“He is the greatest artist of the modern period, and in many ways he thought of himself as a sketchbook,” said Pace CEO Marc Glimcher, speaking to a crowd at a preview, referring to Picasso’s efforts to refine his work through copious sketching.

He sounded almost evangelical when he urged the young people present to recognise that “everyone in this room sees the world differently because of Pablo Picasso”.

In an interview, Glimcher explained that he felt the world needed to be reminded of Picasso’s achievements at a time in our culture where, he said, it seems everything and everyone is being questioned anew. He also noted what he called the icon effect: “When something becomes so iconic it becomes by necessity oversimplified,” he said. “People say, ‘Oh, Picasso, got it’. We have to make sure they DO get it.”

The show, in one large gallery, is organised chronologically, spanning the years 1900-1959, most of Picasso’s career (he died in 1973). Each of the 14 sketchbooks is presented in context with what was going on in his life – including in his romantic relationships, which figured so prominently in his artwork.

Picasso’s early cubist work ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ was sketched many times and painted in oil in 1907 when he was 25.

Many of the sketches are early versions of famed paintings like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), for which one sketchbook tests out various figure renderings; Dora Maar in an Armchair (1939); and his War and Peace murals, for a chapel in southern France, that were finished in 1952.

There is also a film of Picasso, shirtless and in shorts, preparing for those giant murals, needing a ladder to reach the top of his canvas – a reminder of their size.

But elsewhere in the show, the gems are in miniature size. Some of the images are fanciful, like the monsters and clownlike figures, some in bright blue and red pencil, from a 1956-1957 sketchbook that resembles a whimsical children’s book.

A girl observes part of the Picasso: 14 Sketchbooks exhibit at Pace Gallery in New York.Credit: AP

Others feel precise and more technical like the ink drawings in his Juan-les-Pins sketchbooks, from 1924, in which he experiments with shapes of guitars and other objects through patterns of dots and lines, known as constellations. A long poem also appears in one of the sketchbooks, translated in an accompanying catalogue.

With each sketchbook open to only one page, how to uncover the rest? The gallery’s solution is to provide subsequent pages in video displays on a loop.

Practice and more practice. Sketches by Picasso from 1952.Credit: AP

Ruiz-Picasso, the artist’s grandson and son of Paul Picasso, said the sketchbooks deserve a fresh look because much has happened in the past few decades in terms of research into Picasso’s work and the context in which it was produced.

“We have better information now about what he was doing,” Ruiz-Picasso said in an interview. “It’s a kind of archaeological dimension, where we can go more deeply.”

Ruiz-Picasso, who was 13 when his grandfather died, remembers children not being entirely welcome in the studio where the artist painted in Mougins, France, where he lived out his later years. But elsewhere in the home, he remembers him always sketching “until the last piece of paper available”.

“He was permanently doing something,” Ruiz-Picasso said.

The show at the Pace Gallery in New York runs until December 22.


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