Will Gompertz, an arts editor from the British Broadcasting Corporation (abbr. BBC), commented on the exhibition “Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy” presented by the Tate Modern in 2018 that one of the best things about the exhibition was that it allowed audiences to witness not just a modern master’s artistic traces and development but also Picasso’s whole story during 1932 as a normal person . Within the entire narrative, modern master Picasso’s explorations in terms of diversified art styles and philosophies were only part of the exhibition, his crisis at his age of 45, the anxiety caused by his unhappy marriage with Olga Khokhlova and the passionate expressions resulting from a romantic encounter with his Muse Marie-Therese Walter, make up the remaining content of the exhibition. In this exhibition, Picasso was stripped from the appearance of a modern art master and presented as an imperfect man with emotions as being ecstatic, sorrowful, anxious and impulsive.
1932 was an intensely creative period in the life of Pablo Picasso. When Tate Modern decided to focus on Picasso during this year and divided the exhibition hall by month, it presented family photographs and glances of his personal life in addition to more than 100 paintings and sculptures. It seems to reveal that a “natural” Picasso is required to integrate the stereotypical image of this modern art pioneer in the mind of the public.
In this case, creating an increasingly completed image of Picasso seems to be a new trend which is realized by museums, art institutions and curators both in China or in western countries. As spectators in China are gradually ungratified when learning about Cubist Picasso, the exhibition “Picasso – Birth of a Genius” commenced in UCCA Center for Contemporary Art Beijing on 15th of June, 2019, which features the first three decades of Picasso’s career. Artworks in the exhibitions are based on the collection of the Musée national Picasso-Paris, which traces Picasso’s development from childhood to middle age. Taken together, this selection of works realized between 1893 and 1921 constitutes the core of the exhibition and tells the story of the creative formation and evolution of the most daring, original, and prolific talent in the history of modern art.
The earliest introduction and acceptance of Picasso in China could be dated back to the 1910s. During a century-long process of understanding of Picasso in China, the public attitudes towards him and his works vary from different political and social backgrounds – from full of praise and admiration in the early years to constant criticism and controversy later.
Regarding Picasso’s solo exhibitions, the first attempt was practiced by National Art Museum of China through the exhibition “Original Works from Picasso (CN. 毕加索原作展)” in May of 1983, which allowed the public to access Picasso’s original pieces in the real for the first time. Later, the exhibition “Masterpieces from The Musée National Picasso-Paris” was held by the China Pavilion of Shanghai World Expo Exhibition and Convention Center in October of 2011. Following the first of Picasso’s solo exhibition in China in the new millennium, the National Museum of China organized the exhibition “Picasso. Suite Vollard” in March 2014 as a memorial event to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relation between China and Spain.
As the most significant exhibition highlighting work by Pablo Picasso ever to take place in China, “Picasso – Birth of a Genius” was announced by UCCA Center for Contemporary Art Beijing in June of 2019.
With the opportunity of the opening of “Picasso – Birth of a Genius”, a brief retrospect of the four solo exhibitions of Picasso in China will be discussed below, which explores how the image of the art master Picasso in China has been gradually integrated.
I. “Original Works from Picasso (CN. 毕加索原作展)”, National Art Museum of China, May of 1983
The 1980s is regarded as the beginning of Chinese modern and contemporary art. At that period, the negative statement “poisonous grass from the bourgeoisie” used to describe Picasso and his works though following the Great Cultural Revolution this was gradually amended. Meanwhile, a series of monographs regarding Picasso’s life and artistic creation were allowed to be published, such as “Picasso” edited by Wu Bunai which was published by People’s Fine Arts Publishing House in 1982.
Apart from publications, the exhibition “Original Works from Picasso (CN. 毕加索原作展)” presented 33 of Picasso’s original works to the public for the first time in China, including oil paintings and prints created between 1904 and 1970. The exhibition was proposed by the then French President François Mitterrand (1916.10 to 1996.01) in the memory of the 10th anniversary of Picasso’s death and the 102nd anniversary of his birth. In addition to a valuable opportunity for artists, art researchers and the public to access the modern art masterpieces for real, this exhibition also demonstrated the intimately diplomatic relationship between China and France in terms of cultural and political exchanges.
As can be seen in the exhibits, the exhibition intended to present diversified art styles based on Picasso’s long-term artistic exploration through a limited number of artworks. For instance, the print “The Frugal Repast” (1904) was created using a realistic technique to reveal real-life situations; “Guernica” (1937) and “Massacre in Korea” (1951), commended particular historical events with an abstract and surrealistic approach.
II. “Masterpieces from The Musée National Picasso-Paris”, the China Pavilion of Shanghai World Expo Exhibition and Convention Center, October of 2011
In the new millennium, as a significant project in the 13th edition of China Shanghai International Arts Festival, the exhibition “Masterpieces from The Musée National Picasso-Paris” showcased 62 original works in total, which consisted of seven sections of artworks in the area and an area of eight sections of life photographs. It comprehensively retrospected Picasso’s works of eight creative periods from being a juvenile to his old age, including representative works of his Childhood period, Blue period, Rose period, Cubist period, Classical Revivalism period, Surrealist period, Transformation period and Pastoral period. It is worth noting that apart from oil paintings and prints, seven sculptures were included in this exhibition.
This exhibition could be regarded as the first attempt in China to arrange the systematic development of Picasso’s art creations and recognized several significant art forms as utilized by Picasso in his art career.
“I could paint like master Raphael when I was a kid, but I spent my entire life learning to paint like a child.” The quotation from Picasso was presented at the very beginning of the exhibition, which exactly reveals many spectators’ confusion in terms of understanding his art. For most audiences at that time, it was the first time for them to confront works of Picasso directly. Paintings in which viewers see the modern master fluffing his lines and losing his forms. Picasso’s abstract expressions and “uncontrolled” components in his works indeed confused Chinese audiences who are limited in realistic techniques and expression. No one can deny that no matter how familiar the terminologies of Blue, Rose or Cubist periods of Picasso are for the public, “Picasso” is still the only name of an art master placed on the top of the pyramid. Although empowered to have a close interaction with his original works through the exhibition, most of the audiences were still awe-inspired and full of questions regarding such an abstract technique and deconstructive expression.
III. “Picasso. Suite Vollard”, the National Museum of China, March of 2014
The exhibition “Picasso. Suite Vollard” organized by the National Museum of China presented Picasso’s “Vollard Suite” etchings created between September 1930 and March 1937, which was named after the art dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard (1867-1939) who commissioned them. Collected by Fundación ICO since 1991, this series of etchings are considered as the pinnacle of the 20th century a number of historians. By digging in depth into inner emotions, Picasso transformed affective power into the internal strength of his art creations and produced the “Vollard Suite”, which was divided into six sections in this exhibition, namely, “Various Themes”, “Rembrandt”, “Violación” (War of Love), “The Sculptor’s Studio”, “Minotaur” and “Portraits of Ambroise Vollard”. He also developed new techniques of etching during this suite, which enables him to achieve more painterly effects.
It is interesting to note that this series of etchings echoes Tate Modern’s 2019 exhibition, which features the story of a painter’s efforts to capture life itself. The imaginary and emotional register of the prints constantly shifts to reflect Picasso’s erotic and artistic obsessions as well as the anxiety and confusions during that period.
Overall, compared to the previous two solo exhibitions of Picasso in China, this exhibition focused on a specific series of Picasso’s art creation instead of macroscopically researching the veins of his artistic development. In addition to those exhibitions that chronologically divide and present works, “Picasso. Suite Vollard” mined into a particular technique and a series in a specific period of Picasso’s artistic career to reflect on his efforts in terms of creative exploration and style transformation in the 1930s. The exhibition provides the public with a new perspective to observe Picasso, which highlights the series of works inspired by his personal life and affection. In this case, the puzzle of Picasso in the 1930s was gradually filled and became multifaceted.
IV. “Picasso – Birth of a Genius”, UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, June of 2019
Based on the collection of Musée national Picasso-Paris, the exhibition “Picasso – Birth of a Genius” presents 103 works in total, including 34 paintings, 14 sculptures and 55 works on paper. Taking artworks from the first three decades in Picasso’s art career as a direct intermedium, the exhibition depicts the birth and evolution of a genius.
The exhibition hall designed by Studio Adrien Gardère is separated into six chapters, namely, “The First Picasso”, “Picasso Blue and Rose”, “Picasso the Exorcist”, “Picasso the Cubist”, “Picasso the Chameleon”, and the Epilogue. Stepping into the exhibition hall, spectators first encounter Picasso in his childhood and young age. The first chapter accounts for the artist’s artistic upbringing, which features the academic realism of his student days. Picasso in the Blue and Rose periods follows section one. During this period, Picasso started to explore his truly original style by advancing from imitating works from post-impressionist masters. The following chapter “Picasso the Exorcist” showcases the artist’s revolutionary explorations on forms and spaces. It was in this period that Picasso practiced numerous sketches as the preparation of his masterpiece, Les Demoiselles D’Avignon (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1907). By reviewing Picasso’s experiments in terms of observing and deconstructing spaces and forms in different perspectives and dimensions, when spectators closely approach Cubist Picasso, they might be able to trace the origins of Picasso’s artistic language and philosophy in this period.
The section “Picasso the Chameleon” as further reading materials, elaborates on the artist’s significant turn towards classical revivalism. During this period, Picasso did not only research on a new art style by reviving classical elements but also expanded his artistic exploration to stage art and costumes designed among others. The final section showcases several of Picasso’s notable paintings and sculptures created from 1927 to 1973. Based on the previous five chapters’ layers of narrative, this epilogue elaborates that how Picasso’s creative idiom is gradually developed, and how the influence of various experimental explorations at his early age were acted on during his later practice.
Emilia Philippot, the curator of this exhibition and Head of Collections, Musée national Picasso-Paris, made an interpretation regarding Cubism in the opening ceremony. She pointed out that cubism is not abstract; instead, it aims to depict the three-dimensional spaces and forms on a two-dimensional plane. In this case, cubism is a sort of realism. A new deconstruction and reading of cubism are presented in front of the public through this exhibition.
“Picasso – Birth of a Genius” reveals the immature, groping and tangled side of Picasso while it also concerns his pain and melancholic emotions as well as the process of cognition, acceptance and application of his original artistic language. For the public, it is doubtless that learning about an artist through viewing his or her original pinnacle of works is efficient and rare; however, on this basis, if there is an opportunity for spectators to read the entire life story of this artist through not only notable pieces but also immature and diversified styles of works, and shares the empathy of the artist’s complicated emotions during the creative process, especially in his or her early ages, it might create a more in-depth understanding.
Nowadays, the term “Picasso” cannot be interpreted only by referencing descriptions in the textbook and is not only concerned by artists and art researchers. Instead, the general public would also like to have conversations and interact with Picasso in different periods by entering art institutions and viewing exhibitions. In the future, taking an exhibition as a methodology, increasing numbers and dimensions of interpretations of Picasso are expected to be constructed.
 Will Gompertz, “Review: Picasso at Tate Modern”, BBC Official Website: www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-43348039 Accessed in June, 2019.
 The number of works here references Professor Wu Xueshan’s article “Picasso in China 1917-2019”, published in the exhibition catalogue of “Picasso – Birth of Genius”, 2019. According to the annotation, Professor Wu referenced “The exhibition of Picasso Paintings” (CN. 毕加索绘画展) edited by Michelle Riche and published by China Exhibition Company 1983.
Text by Emily Weimeng Zhou
Edited by Sue/CAFA ART INFO
Courtesy of UCCA Center for Contemporary Art and Musée national Picasso-Paris (Except for annotated pictures)