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Picasso exhibition in Beirut reveals the artist’s take on love, family and fatherhood

Pieces by the Spanish master are on show as part of a retrospective in the Lebanese capital that reveals much about the artist's most intimate relationships

Visitors tour the exhibition at Sursock Museum in Beirut. AFP
Visitors tour the exhibition at Sursock Museum in Beirut. AFP

“Every child is an artist,” Pablo Picasso reportedly once said. “The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” In Picasso et la famille (­Picasso and the family), the first exhibition to bring his work to Lebanon, 20 pieces in various media demonstrate the Spanish artist’s own ability to tap into a childlike spirit of playfulness in his work, seeking inspiration in his own life and the creativity of his children, as well as the universal themes of love, parenthood and family.

The exhibition, which runs at the Sursock Museum until Monday, January 6, is organised in collaboration with Musee Picasso Paris and features several works that have rarely – if ever – been shown in public. It is curated by Sursock Museum’s Yasmine Chemali and Camille Frasca, head of the Picasso-Mediterranee project, an international venture to display Picasso’s work by the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The exhibition in Beirut marks the finale of the project, which has included more than 40 shows held over the past two years.

Visitors observe the artwork "The Barefoot Girl" (1895) by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso displayed at the Sursock Museum in the Lebanese capital Beirut on September 27, 2019. Lebanon launched its first exhibition of late Spanish artist Pablo Picasso's works this month with more than 20 works centred around the theme of family, organisers said. The exhibition will run until January next year. / AFP / JOSEPH EID
Visitors to Sursock Museum in Beirut observe ‘The Barefoot Girl’, which Picasso painted in 1895, when he was 14. The subject is believed to be connected to the death of his sister, Conchita, 7. AFP

“I think this theme is particularly generous,” Chemali says. “It allows us to speak about the first years of the creation of Picasso – he was 14 years old when he painted the first work – and the last period that we are showing, quite extensively, is the last six months or year before he passed away. It’s really autobiographical about himself and his way of seeing relationships [but] it’s not just his family.”

Divided into four sections, the exhibition includes paintings, drawings, etchings and sculptures and is arranged chronologically, providing a thematic approach to understanding Picasso’s life and his creative progression.

The artist, who lived from 1881 to 1973, was no traditional family man. Fathering four children with three women over the course of several decades, he was married twice and maintained a string of lovers. While some of the works on show reveal aspects of the artist’s own life, inspired by his relationships with women or his fascination with his children’s forays into painting, many deal with the more general themes of friendship, love and parenthood.

In this exhibition you have a selection of works that is quite unexpected.

Yasmine Chemali

“In this exhibition you have a selection of works that is quite unexpected,” Chemali says. “You won’t see the Blue period or the Pink period or even the Cubist period. We are showing things that are a bit different and even artworks that are definitely for the first time in the Middle East, but maybe also for the first time in their lives coming out of museum storage.”

The work spans a period from 1895, when Picasso was only 14 years old, to 1972, when he was 92. The Barefoot Girl, the earliest work in the show, is a touching portrait that demonstrates not only Picasso’s technical genius but also the raw emotional power of his work. One of his first oil paintings, it captures a young woman in a faded red dress, her cheeks still rosy and round with the softness of childhood, but her downcast eyes filled with sadness. “She was a very poor girl. Maybe he met her in the streets of Barcelona or Madrid,” Frasca says. “This poor girl is the vision of the young painter regarding this figure of a little girl on the streets, so it’s an emotional way to see … This is the period in which he had lost his young sister, Conchita.”

Pablo Picasso 'Françoise, Claude, Paloma : la lecture et les jeux. II' [Françoise, Claude, Paloma: reading and games], Paris, 16 January 1953 Musée national Picasso-Paris Dation Pablo Picasso, 1979. MP3009 © RMN-Grand Palais © Succession Picasso 2019
Picasso’s partner, Francoise Gilot, and their children are depicted in his 1953 picture, ‘Francoise, Claude, Paloma: reading and games II’. Succession Picasso 2019

Beside the painting are two small drawings, one a tender sketch of the artist’s mother and his other sister, Lola, embroidering side by side, and the other a bold, almost sculptural drawing of two women standing together, looking down at a baby and a small child. These two works convey the breadth of the exhibition, Frasca says, synthesising the artist’s personal life and his approach to the symbolism of family in a more universal sense, inspired by Old Masters, religious iconography and literature.

The second phase of the exhibition is the most abstract and emotionally complex, coinciding with Picasso’s love affairs with two of the most important women in his life – Marie-Therese Walter and the Surrealist photographer Dora Maar – and with the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. A diminutive carved wooden sculpture capturing a couple locked in an embrace, and a large bronze sculpture depicting the abstracted, voluptuous curves of the female form are offset by works that hint at ­Picasso’s emotional turmoil in response to the conflict in his homeland and the cost of his self-imposed exile to oppose Francisco Franco’s rule.

The artist’s preoccupation with violence can be glimpsed in a tiny drawing from 1943, an ink sketch overlaying a photograph on a fragment of torn newspaper. He had drawn a man holding a baby, which appears to be crying in fear or pain. Entitled The Kiss, it shows the man with a grotesque, elongated mouth full of teeth appearing to bite the infant’s chubby cheek.

Pablo Picasso 'Le Peintre et l’enfant' [The painter and the child], Mougins, 21 October 1969 Musée national Picasso-Paris Dation Jacqueline Picasso, 1990. MP1990-36 © RMN-Grand Palais © Succession Picasso 2019
Pablo Picasso's 'Le Peintre et l’enfant' [The painter and the child]. Succession Picasso 2019

“This kiss is a devouring kiss. It’s an awful kiss. It’s an image of the family, but of the disaster of the family, the disaster of war as well. This is like an animal, like the animals that you would have in Guernica as well,” Frasca says of Picasso’s powerful anti-war painting depicting the aftermath of a Nazi bombing.

The third section takes the most literal approach to the concept of family, focusing on a period in the 1950s, after Picasso fathered his two youngest children, Claude and Paloma. One sketch from this period captures the youngsters playing together under the protective eye of their mother. A bold, childlike painting captures a similar scene, exemplifying how Picasso, now in his seventies, found inspiration in his own children’s artistic naivety and spontaneity, echoing their use of primary colours and basic geometric shapes.

“At 12 years old I could paint like Raphael, but it took me a whole lifetime to learn to paint like a child,” he once said.

Three sculptures reveal Picasso’s exploration of pregnancy and motherhood, including a playful collage of cut and folded sheet metal depicting a mother playing with her child, holding the infant joyfully aloft in a moment that celebrates maternal intimacy. The curators have also included a selection of black-and-white photographs capturing Picasso playing with his children and painting in his studio, contextualising the works against a biographical backdrop that helps to convey the ways in which his life circumstances dictated his approach to subject and style.

The final section of the exhibition tackles fictional families, featuring a selection of large paintings completed between 1969 and 1972, many inspired by figures from literature. Characterised by freedom and spontaneity, these paintings are bold and stylised, executed at great speed. The artist sometimes produced as many as three in a single day. “This very last period is like a synthesis of all the periods he went through before and he was exploring all his life,” Frasca says. One painting captures an old man lying down with a young child balanced on his legs, waving a paintbrush in the air.

“It’s a family observation and I guess the autobiographical link [comes from] knowing that Picasso’s father was a painter as well, and that Picasso himself was teaching his children how to paint and draw,” she reflects. “He is the kid and at some point, he is the old man as well.”

Picasso et la famille runs until Monday, January 6, at Sursock Museum, Ashrafieh, Beirut

Updated: October 6, 2019 07:50 PM

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