As ideas for exhibitions go, “artist uses paper” is about as interesting and newsworthy as “man walks dog”. Yet Picasso and Paper – a colossal new exhibition of more than 300 works at the Royal Academy – is so full of surprises and delightful moments of frivolity and mischief that it confounds this assumption.
At first, it seems like a straightforward, even conventional retrospective. It begins with a couple of charming paper cut-outs of a dove and a dog that Picasso, a child prodigy, made when he was nine. Twelve sections later, it ends with one of his last drawings, a chilling, unflinching self-portrait of his own face as a boulder-like skull, which the artist – who always feared death – produced aged 90.
Throughout, the curators respect the standard chronological divisions of Picasso’s career. So, in the first gallery, we find a masterpiece of the Blue Period, “La Vie” (1903) – never seen in Britain, and on loan from the Cleveland Museum of Art (where the exhibition will travel later this year) – alongside preparatory works on paper illuminating the painting’s evolution. After a sojourn among the melancholic “saltimbanques” (circus performers) of Picasso’s Rose Period, we encounter studies for his great Modernist manifesto, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907).
There is a chapter on Cubism, a section about Surrealism (a movement to which Picasso, who was always more solo artist than band member, never fully committed), a gallery devoted to his output during the Second World War, when he remained in occupied Paris, and so on. This structure, which also emphasises Picasso’s well-known relationships with women, including, from 1927, his voluptuous young lover Marie-Thérèse Walter (once brilliantly described by Picasso’s biographer John Richardson as “an adolescent bundle of pneumatic bliss with a big nose”), affirms the usual take: that, as an artist – as well as womaniser – he was prolific, and dazzlingly protean. Picasso was an incessant stylistic shape-shifter, one moment drawing like Ingres, the next imitating the impulsive, energetic scribbling of a child.
If this were all, however, the exhibition would function as little more than a classy primer on the many phases of Picasso’s art. Fortunately, the curators include much to satisfy even those Picassophiles who’ve seen it all before. In part, this is a practical strategy, to enhance the drama of the exhibition. Works on paper risk getting swallowed up like plankton by the RA’s leviathan-like galleries, so, here, they are displayed on low, false walls, painted a different colour from the surrounding architecture, to foster the illusion of intimacy. Each section is then structured around, say, a couple of large paintings which can hold a room, displayed beside related studies. The moment with “La Vie” is the earliest instance of this approach, but there are many others, including a room containing Picasso’s wartime sculpture “Man with a Sheep” (1943), the gloomy drawings for which remind us that this beast is wriggling desperately while crying out. Life under the Nazis can’t have been much fun.
The show also goes to great lengths to illustrate Picasso’s lifelong love affair with paper as a material (he once said that a batch of expensive Japanese paper “seduced” him into making a set of drawings). Picasso never considered paper merely a support for his drawings and experimental prints (though there are lots of these, including an early woodcut hand-printed using a salad bowl as the block). Rather, he saw it as something palpable, which he could manipulate by folding, tearing, crumpling, scratching, sticking, or even burning with a cigarette or matches.
Hoping to demonstrate this, the curators spent days trawling the archives of the Musée Picasso in Paris, the “partner” institution for this exhibition, looking for things that are rarely, if ever, displayed. The showstopper is a vast collage, almost 15 feet across, pasted together using a stockpile of wallpapers, depicting three women at their toilette – including, on the left, Picasso’s embittered Russian wife Olga Khokhlova, “combing” (or should that be chopping off?) the hair of his lover Dora Maar, who is centre stage. He created this as a cartoon for a tapestry after completing “Guernica” (1937), more than two decades after he’d first incorporated decorative wallpapers and other cut-and-pasted fragments (including newsprint) into his Cubist compositions. It hasn’t been seen in Britain for 50 years – and upends expectations that a show called “Picasso and Paper” must only feature small prints and drawings.
There are other less spectacular but still memorable finds: rarely seen sketchbooks; notes scribbled on hotel stationery; political cartoons drawn on newspaper front pages; doctored photographs from fashion magazines, which Picasso transformed into bawdy doodles. (In one, an elegant Vogue model suddenly opens her legs before a window.) There’s also a display of macabre little paper animals and masks that Picasso, while dining out, used to fashion from torn and burned napkins, to cheer up Maar following the death of her pet dog.
Towards the end, we even see two specially restored drawings executed during the making of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s documentary film Le Mystère Picasso (1956), which is also screened. For these, Picasso used new felt-tip pens, imported from America, which bled through the blank, fragile newsprint support, so that a camera positioned on the other side of the sheet from the artist could track his marks.
Now, Picasso was the sort of hoarder who kept every Métro ticket, and some of what I’ve outlined may sound like ephemera. A napkin torn into, say, the shape of a skull will, surely, only have the aura of a saintly relic for the most ardent Picasso-worshipper. But these seemingly throwaway exhibits are worth our attention, because they lay bare – more, arguably, than a finished canvas – the processes of Picasso’s creativity, as well as his irreverent approach to art and life. Until the end, he was forever fashioning odd little artworks from whatever scraps happened to be at hand, and was just as happy working with newsprint or cheap wrapping paper as plush “Ingres” sheets. That playfulness and disregard for decorum are, surely, the secret of his immense, sorcerer-like talent. Picasso could be serious, but, as this beautifully designed and curated exhibition reminds us, he was never solemn.