Recently opened at Gagosian’s Chelsea Gallery, “Picasso and the Camera” is intimate almost to the point of discomfort. You can and are encouraged to closely examine personal photos from all aspects of the notorious painter’s life. And it should comes as no surprise that behind this exhibition is a man who knows Picasso well, his biographer John Richardson.
Assuming the role of curator, Richardson takes us on a tour of Picasso’s relationship with the lens over the course of his career. As a tool of artistic documentation, Picasso captured domestic scenes with his wife Olga Khokhlova and infant son, Paulo—images which would become models for drawings and paintings. He even took autoportraits of himself standing alone in his studio, staring into the camera with an uncharacteristic air of modesty.
What becomes interesting is the movement of the camera out of Picasso’s hands and into those of others. Picasso transitions into the roles of subject and celebrity. Increased fame and veneration caused Picasso to become more and more of a public figure. As you move through the exhibition, the photos become of Picasso, not by Picasso.
In the center of the gallery space, film clips are projected. Footage from the movie Le mystère Picasso demonstrates fascination with uncovering the artist’s process. Sitting shirtless in a filming studio, Picasso paints quick little images on demand, every brushstroke captured by cameras on either side of a translucent canvas. His bewildering images lose some of their mysteriousness, betrayed by the revealed process of their creation. With a remaining five minutes of film, he paints with reckless abandon: a bunch of roses becomes a fish becomes a rooster before, pausing filming to pour more ink into his palette, Picasso settles on covering all of the previous layers with a satanic figure in the final seconds. Though his original images are concealed, they remain burned into the mind of those watching.
Photographer Lucien Clergue, a friend of Picasso, captured the familiar image of a balding, older Picasso playfully posing in a lounge chair at the beach; another photo shows him crouched over, tracing an image in the sand with his finger. Footage filmed by Man Ray shows Picasso and friends eating casually in a seaside restaurant at Garoupe—watching is delightfully voyeuristic. Picasso and his friends chat and laugh, Picasso grinning and smoking. A young woman is caught applying makeup and scolds the cameraman. All these moments come together and create a sense of Picasso as a person and not just the more familiar artistic genius.
What is placed in the peripheral as you look at these photos are Picasso’s actual paintings. An impressive assemblage of his work, primarily portraits of lovers and friends, is intermixed into the gallery space. Surprisingly, these works become secondary, supplementing the narrative of the photos they accompany. The painting Femme nue se coiffant is almost out-charmed by the small black and white image hanging to its left, of Picasso standing next to the work in his studio. At the opposite end of a hallway from the photographer, Picasso is dwarfed by the canvas at his side, smiling coyly.
Together the photos and paintings create a strong sense of familiarity between the viewer and Picasso. One sees glimpses into his personal and creative life. The gravitational allure of his work and personality are unmistakable; one cannot help but be charmed by the man that was Pablo Picasso.
Written by Rowanne Dean