North Adams Transcript
WILLIAMSTOWN -- Peppered throughout the works of Pablo Picasso are the borrowed ideas of old masters, Impressionists painters and even his contemporary artists -- Paul Cézanne, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Diego Velasquesz, El Greco and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Picasso reshaped their images and ideas in his own fashion -- twisting, bending, stretching and imitating -- in response to the art created in the community surrounding his Parisian studio in Montmartre and in his native Barcelona.
But it was Edgar Degas, the Impressionist painter and sculptor, who arguably had the most prolific influence on Picasso -- although it has yet to be proven that the pair ever held a single conversation or rubbed elbows at an event, despite living in the same neighborhood, sharing the same models and having the same art dealer at one point.
A new exhibition at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, "Picasso Looks at Degas," which opens on Sunday, June 13, juxtaposes the work of the two artists -- paintings, sculptures, sketches and monoprints -- alongside the new research of curators Richard Kendall and Elizabeth Cowling, which follows the interwoven pattern of the two artists’ lives.
"Degas was one of many who influenced his work, but he’s not one who has been researched," Cowling, professor emeritus of art history at Edinburgh University, said Tuesday during a tour of the exhibit.
"What we aim to do with this exhibit is to bring him forward and put him where he belongs." One of only two stops for the exhibit, and the only American venue, the show travels to the Museu Picasso in Barcelona this fall.
Spanning three floors and numerous galleries, the show chronicles Picasso’s lifelong obsession with Degas, beginning as an early teen and continuing through his 90s.
"We present the pieces in pairings, suggesting common ground," Kendall, curator-at-large at the Clark, said, explaining the show’s setup. While the idea isn’t new -- past exhibitions have paired Picasso with his other artistic influences and rivals -- the show chronicles what Kendall and Cowling envision are clues that could eventually turn up an undocumented meeting or conversation between the pair.
"If only there were writings," Cowling said. "Picasso wrote no letters, kept no journals or diaries. He wasn’t given to talking about his artistic career or influences. When he was interviewed he went for the throw-away line." Kendall added, "We don’t have a clue as to how [Degas] felt about Picasso. We do know what he thought about cubism. He said it was harder than painting."
While the pair never found a diary entry or letter that mentioned the two together, they do know the pair was invited to party thrown by a fellow painter, a friend of Picasso, in 1906.
"We know that Picasso went, but we don’t know about Degas," Cowling said.
What they did find were four decades worth of examples of Degas commanding influence on Picasso’s work.
"The two had a great affinity for the same themes -- nudes, bathers, brothels, cafes, the ballet and the Parisian lower class," Kendall said. "They had an affinity for the sexuality of the human figure. They had the same tastes as artists El Greco and Goya. They responded to edgy imagery."
Both were classically trained draftsmen, with an urgency to represent aspects of modern life in their work. Degas challenged the neo-classical masters with his fellow Impressionists, while Picasso was part of a new generation of modern artists challenging Degas’ generation.
"There’s this love-hate relationship that can be seen," Kendall said.
"You can see at a young age that there’s this need to be better than Degas. Sometimes he emulates him. Other times he mocks him."
While many of Picasso’s early works mirror those of Degas -- similar themes, angles, subjects and styles -- no where is the influence more clear than a gallery filled with scenes from the ballet.
"There’s been very little comparison -- this is the first time that there’s been an extended investigation of the link," Kendall said.
Although Degas’ "Little Dancer Aged 14" is now well known in the art world, the artist only exhibited the statue once -- in its wax form. Critics called the depiction vulgar and suggested the girl was destined for a life of prostitution.
However, in 1901, a teenage Picasso painted "The Dwarf," a portrait of a young woman, standing in a position similar to Degas’ "Little Dancer," right foot forward and chin at an angle.
He would later repeat the stance in 1907 with "Standing Nude," which depicts a dancer with an Africanized mask face and cubist body.
"You can only imagine my delight when we found these similarities," Kendall said. "Both depictions are almost the same size as well."
The similarities can also be seen in a series of statuettes Picasso made after visiting an exhibition of Degas’ ballet statues, which were shown in 1931, well after his death.
But it wasn’t until near his 90th birthday that Picasso actually depicted Degas in his work -- placing the artist in a series of etchings that emulated a collection of bawdy monotypes Degas made of brothel prostitutes.
"He depicted Degas in the scenes, often in margins, as the client," Cowling said. "Picasso was obsessed with owning these monotypes, which he tried to acquire most of his life. It wasn’t until 1958 that he succeeded. He coveted them and he showed them very proudly."
Picasso also owned a picture of Degas at that point, which he proudly displayed in his studio and often referred to late in life.
"There’s no simple answer for the obsession," Kendall said. "I don’t think we’ve found all the answers. What we do know is that others will build upon our work in the future."
"Picasso Looks at Degas" opens at the Clark on Sunday and runs through Sept. 12. The galleries are open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; open daily in July and August. Admission is $15 through Oct. 31, and free to members, children 18 and under and full-time students with identification.
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