Arts and Entertainment

Pablo Picasso: A Parisian Outcast

The Gagosian’s A Foreigner Called Picasso sheds light on Pablo Picasso’s struggle to be recognized as an artist, kept under watch by the police for his anarchist ties.

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Pablo Picasso arrived in France from Barcelona in 1900 amidst great political tension—French President Sadi Carnot had been assassinated by an Italian anarchist just six years earlier. Suspected of anarchism himself, Picasso created art while labeled a pariah in France. Making its debut in November, the Gagosian’s exhibit A Foreigner Called Picasso interprets Pablo Picasso’s entire body of work in the context of the political turmoil of 20th-century Paris, where he lived as a distrusted foreigner subject to police surveillance for many decades. Informed by Annie Cohen Solal’s book Picasso the Foreigner (2023), the exhibit is divided into numerous galleries, each representing a different era in Picasso’s life. The exhibit also utilizes two extra rooms: one dedicated to the photography of Picasso’s son, Claude, and another featuring historical newspapers and photos from Picasso’s career.

Picasso was first called under police investigation for his controversial depiction of life in Montmartre. His earliest police report in 1901 recounts how Picasso painted “the sloven, the drunkard, the thief, or the murderess,” and “beggars, abandoned by the city.” The police cast Picasso as an anarchist, scrutinizing his clear criticisms of French capitalist society. For example, Arlequin (1901) focuses on the theater character Harlequin, drawing attention to the working-class artists and performers in Montmartre. Harlequin wears a checkered, ruffled costume in a dominating shade of blue that invokes a feeling of sadness. His side profile shows his unnaturally tiny, beady eyes separated from his nose by an expanse of pale skin. His hairline is uneven and his fingers are clubbed, anatomically inconsistent with the rest of his body. Harlequin sits at a cafe table in front of fluorescent green wallpaper filled with simplistic, colorful flowers that flow to the top of the canvas. The flowers are minimally detailed, with paint messily smudged on top of them, blurring out their image. This painting’s style heavily deviates from Picasso’s other, naturalistic paintings from the 1900s, creating an image that feels detached from reality in its strange proportions and distorted landscape. Arlequin can be viewed as a self-portrait: it strips Picasso down to Harlequin, a warped, physical manifestation of the outcasts and subjugates of Paris. 

Shortly thereafter, Picasso entered his Cubist phase, utilizing combinations of geometric shapes to create imagery. This style is seen early in the exhibit with Corps de Femme de Face (1908), a small-scale anatomical drawing of a headless female body. The figure’s shape, including the natural curves of her female form, is created exclusively with angular edges. Harsh, quick lines jab through the sharp corners of the figure to create shadow. Picasso’s Cubism was celebrated by German critics, which subjected Picasso to greater police scrutiny due to the anti-German sentiment resulting from World War I. Ironically, in the years leading up to World War II, the Germans also condemned Picasso; he was classified as a “degenerate artist” by the Nazis in response to his now-famous Guernica (1937): a haunting denouncement of Nazi Germany and fascism after the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. When the Nazis occupied Paris in 1940, Picasso, while not directly persecuted for his “degeneracy,” was barred from showing his art in French museums.

By 1944, Picasso had joined the Communist Party, passionately asserting that “I have never felt more free, more complete since I joined.” To Picasso, joining the Communist Party was a continuation of his longstanding sympathy with the working class and against fascism. After World War II, Picasso moved to the southern commune of Vallauris and took up ceramics. Ceramics allowed Picasso to embrace a communist, proletarian identity, as they were seen in France as a decorative craft for manual laborers rather than a fine art form. Sitting in an array of ceramic works in the exhibit is the bust Tete de Femme Bleu (1948-1949), a woman with bulgy eyes and shades of blue spread across her nose and inner cheeks. A white bow is painted above her forehead, and her eyebrows are angular and bushy. Thanks to its overwhelming use of blue, which allows it to stand out, the bust feels like one of Picasso’s paintings in physical form. This is further exemplified by the bust’s style: the woman’s facial structure is composed of round edges, which are particularly exaggerated in her unsettling eyes and their asymmetrical circular pupils. Tete de Femme Bleu shows how Picasso approached stylizing paintings and ceramics similarly, seeing ceramics as a natural extension of his painting and both mediums as definitive reflections of his modern and surrealist style. 

The exhibit concludes in Vallauris, where Picasso continued to work throughout the 1950s and ‘60s. By then, Picasso had achieved global acclaim as a pioneer of modern art, and Paris was finally ready to celebrate his talents with the massive exhibit Hommage à Picasso (1966). Additionally, the French government offered Picasso citizenship (after a history of denying his requests for it), which he declined. World War II was behind him, so Picasso no longer sought the extra security citizenship provided. He did not even attend his show, true to his spirit of resistance and defiance. 

During this time, Picasso’s work consolidated every facet of his career, indicative of his constantly evolving artistic style. This is shown in Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O) (1955), inspired by its 1834 namesake made by artist Eugene Delacroix. On the painting’s far left is a woman sitting contentedly with a faint smile. Though her image is far from naturalistic—with blocky hands and exaggerated, wide eyes—her figure is still clearly recognizable as a human woman’s. The shading on her face, soft streaks on her cheeks, dark shadow on her nose, and the bright highlights spread throughout her hair and upper body give the painting a sense of depth. She feels like a real, tangible figure, contrasting with the cluster of less recognizable female figures beside her. The figures lack heads (similarly to those in Corps de Femme de Face) with disjointed, angular body parts stretched in absurd positions across the canvas. Triangles are spliced between their limbs, which overlap through the floors and walls in a jumbled mess of distorted human form. This signals Picasso’s once-controversial use of Cubism returning in full force: his geometric figures are spread across the canvas in a way that breaks the painting’s sense of space, allowing them to seemingly merge with the triangular pattern of the background walls. Despite his use of distinct styles, Picasso creates consistency in the painting using a central color palette of red, green, blue, black, and yellow.

A Foreigner Called Picasso is a fascinating albeit limited look at Picasso’s career, as the exhibit’s artistic scope does not accommodate its ambition. The exhibition guide characterizes Picasso as an avant-garde, political revolutionary, yet it cites well-known works such as Guernica as examples of this assertion rather than relying on its own pieces. The fact that Picasso was hunted by the police and associated with political radicalism may lead to a greater appreciation of the visually interesting works displayed, but a disconnect between the art and history remains.