Those Picassos before Picasso on display at the Mudec in Milan


By John

We all know that Pablo Picasso (Malaga, 1881 – Mougins, 1973) was led to his deconstructions (or metamorphoses) of the human figure by his admiration for primitive art, African and Oceanic in particular. It's nothing new. And it is also true that those who are interested in art, professionals and amateurs, have just returned from 2023, the year in which the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the Spanish painter was celebrated in every way. We may be temporarily saturated. Let us also add that forty works (paintings, drawings and sculptures) are an infinitesimal number compared to the fifty thousand, one plus one less, ascertained in the endless production of a “omnivorous” artist, considered the greatest of the last century.

They could have been negative assumptions, in short. Not for the Mudec of Milan which still surprises with a perfect, didactic, well-motivated and exciting exposition. The exhibition «Picasso. The metamorphosis of the figure”, produced by 24Ore Cultura – Gruppo 24 Ore and promoted by the Municipality of Milan-Cultura, with the patronage of the Spanish Embassy in Italy, curated by Malén Gual, honorary curator of the Picasso Museum in Barcelona together with Ricardo Ostalé, will remain open until 30 June and offers, among other things, the 26 drawings and sketches of preparatory studies of the very precious Notebook n. 7 granted by the Pablo Ruiz Picasso Foundation-Museo Casa Natal of Malaga (the painter had chosen the surname of his mother).

What appears evident, more than on other occasions in the past, is the logical path that splendidly connects Picasso's works with others, mainly sculptures (many are part of the permanent endowment of the Mudec), mostly coming from Africa , what in the early twentieth century was classified only as exotic objects, to be collected and possibly exploited, according to the sad and disqualifying European approach to the Black Continent.

There is an example that applies to everyone and it is the one that comes to us from a wooden Suruku Mask, carved in Mali presumably at the end of the 19th century or immediately after, in which the elongated shapes of the nose and ears stand out. Characteristics that we find perfectly reproduced in Picasso's painting «Naked Woman» (Femme Nue, 1907, priceless heritage of the Museo del Novecento in Milan, here extremely enhanced by the lights of the exhibition), whose face seems to be a tracing; at the same time it is also a completely different work in terms of its formal completeness, even within the framework of an aesthetic already very far from classicism. Incidentally, we find the same nose shape on display in the «Leaning Nude» from 1961, that is, 54 years later. In fact, one of the curators' most successful bets is to demonstrate how Picasso always remained faithful to his love for primitive art, well beyond his first approach to the “disordered and smelly” (this is how he describes it in a mixture of admiration-contempt ) Trocadéro museum which he visited in Paris in 1907 and which is considered the turning point in the artist's transition to his own expressive world, always vital and ever-changing, which led him in various ways to the so-called “metamorphosis of the figure”.

He, although often contradictory in self-describing his artistic journey, told it like this: «When I was at the Trocadéro Museum for the first time, a rotten smell caught me in the throat. I was so depressed that I wanted to leave right away. But I forced myself and I stayed, to examine those masks, all those objects that men had created with a sacred, magical objective, to act as an intermediary between themselves and the intangible, hostile forces that surrounded them, trying to overcome fear giving them shape and color. And so I understood that that was the very meaning of painting.” It appears clear, therefore, how that influence, more or less nuanced, is found throughout his artistic career, even in the most important phase of Cubism, often considered distant from that first inspiration.

The first five sections of the exhibition (A look towards other cultures, Les Damoiselles d'Avignon, Cubisms, The permanence of tribal art in Picasso's work, Metamorphosis of the figure) reconstruct the strength of this bond, which is continually renewed. In particular, the Notebook, displayed page by page, of the preparatory drawings of the «Damoiselles», as well as giving us the emotion of the work in progress that develops before our eyes, is testimony to Picasso's stylistic transformation, always underlying that idea spirituality of the art that had been transferred to him from African sculptures. Also for this reason the sixth section appears necessary (Picasso and African art: a mutual attraction), in which works by the Beninese Romual Hazoumè, the Mozambican Gonçalo Mabunda and the Congolese Cheri Samba show both Picassian and tribal ancestry, in an effective synthesis of different styles that start from a common root.

Thus it is also possible to remember the fact that Picasso created the manifesto of the first congress of black writers and artists, held in 1956 at the Sorbonne in Paris, which brought together the main intellectuals of the African anti-colonialist movement. Perhaps he didn't imagine that his ideas would be at the forefront even today, in a time of useless nationalism.