Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Pablo's Wireframes: The Architecture of Picasso's Dots and Lines

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Pablo Picasso shocked me.

I know.  Such a thing should be impossible, forty years after the artist's death, and a century after he began the career that would change the direction of Western Art.  And shock is no longer what you generally experience when you walk through Picasso and Chicago, the engaging new exhibition at the Art Institute which skillfully rises above the fact that the artist never set foot in America, much less Chicago.  It's an exhilarating, even comforting show.  Whatever their original provocation, the 250+ works on display, ranging from graceful traditional portraits to often violent abstractions, now all seem like old friends.

No, my shocking moment came with, of all things, a book. In 1927, French art dealer Ambroise Vollard commissioned Picasso to illustrate a new, limited edition of Honoré de Balzac's novella, Le chef-d’oeuvre inconnu (The Unknown Masterpiece).  The story concerns the old painter Frenhofer, who has been unable to finish a single work for ten years, until he is introduced to a young woman who will become his new model.  She is so beautiful Frenhofer is inspired to quickly finish the painting, but he becomes so obsessed with a defect in his depiction of her foot that he goes mad, destroys the painting, and kills himself.  The short story, updated, was made into a famous, four-hour Jacques Rivette film, La belle noiseuse, with Michel Piccoli and a frequently nude Emmanuelle Béart, and, much later, a suppressed episode of The Simpsons.

Picasso claimed to have become haunted by Balzac's tale.  Although it was not included in the 1931 reprint, he created his own woodblock, Le chef-d’oeuvre inconnu.  It was rediscovered in a junk shop in 1972, but that's another story.  In 1936, Picasso moved to a studio at No. 7 rue des Grandes-Augustin, believed to have been the house in which Balzac's novella began.  The following year he painted Guernica there.

The Picasso and Chicago copy of Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu is kept under plexiglass, away from greasy hands.  Next to it, however, a video screen lets you move through the entire book, page by page.
It is an astonishing work of art, with no fewer than 13 etchings and 67 woodcuts, and various witty visual emendations, some in color.
Most of the illustrations are richly figurative, one splendid drawing after another until, flipping through the pages, I came across this . . .
What are we looking at?  According to biographer John Richardson, in the summer of 1924, “The splendor of the meridonal sky . . . inspired Picasso to create his own constellations: ink dots connected by fine pen lines that turn the zodiac into guitars and mandolins and the crotchen-dotted staves of musical scores.”
In these sixteen pages of drawings, one can find the foundations of many of Picasso's works.   What struck me most, however, is how these dots and lines infer form, like a CAD wireframe.  It put me in mind of some of the drawings of Helmut Jahn.

In 1928, Picasso created four maquettes for a memorial to his late friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire.  It's as if he's lifted his constellations off the page - lines into iron wire and dots into small bits of steel plate -  and willed them into the third dimension.  The fleshy materiality of traditional sculpture, of brass and marble, is dissolved.  Picasso creates a pure 3-D geometry, form scrubbed clean of content.
When Picasso presented the maquettes to the committee raising funds for the memorial, they were rejected as too radical.  “What did they expect me to make,“ Picasso would comment later, “a Muse holding a torch?”

Only three of the small maquettes survive, but in 1972, shortly before his death, it was announced that Picasso would make a gift to New York's Museum of Modern Art of a 15-foot steel-rod sculpture, ‘Construction in Wire.’  It was a full-scale version of one of the Apollinaire maquettes, by now called his ‘drawing in air’ sculptures.  The work for MOMA was to be fabricated in Cor-ten steel, the same Cor-Ten used a few years before at the then Civic, now Daley Center, in what would be Picasso's most monumental sculpture, his gift to Chicago.
Picasso was not an architect.  As can be seen in his dot and line drawings, however, the way he thought about form, space and volume would be the envy of most architects.  You might call him the first Parametricist, but my gut feeling is that Picasso forgot more than Patrik Schumacher will ever know.
Picasso and Chicago runs at the Art Institute through May 12, 2013.  It is not to be missed.  Take my advice: carve out time during your visit to find those mesmerizing 16 pages.

1 comment:

Matt Maldre said...

Oh wow. I've always thought of those lines in Chicago's Picasso as just support for the face of the sculpture. But now I appreciate those lines as a form of sculpture unto themselves.