I’ve been thinking a lot about family these days. Father’s Day was last Sunday, June 20 (did you remember to call your dad?) and this coming Sunday, June 27 is Family Day at the Clark, the can’t-miss family event of the summer (more on that later). It is with these events, people, and relationships in mind that I have been revisiting the pictures in Picasso Looks at Degas. While the exhibition is manifestly about two great painters and the undeniable influence of one (Degas) on the other (Picasso), by no means does it suggest that the story follows a simple, two-person script chronicling a the lives of geniuses locked away in their studios. Friends, lovers, spouses, sisters, cousins, and fathers all make their appearances in the different acts of the show, from the early years of the artists’ artistic training, to Picasso’s arrival Paris in the early 1900s, and even in the show’s dénouement set in the bedrooms and boudoirs of brothels.
The most visible and engaging entrées of Degas and Picasso family members occur in the first gallery of the exhibition, which explores the artists’ earliest engagement with drawing and painting the human figure. For both artists-in-training, family members were often the only consistently available models from which to make life studies; parents and siblings appear in some of their earliest efforts. Picasso’s sister, Lola, poses in a fantastic charcoal and colored pencil drawing from 1899, in which her dark, heavy-lidded eyes stare back at her brother (and the contemporary viewer) with an arresting gaze that seems at once comtemplative, brooding, and bored. A vigorous study by Degas of his cousin Giulia Bellelli, whose family he visited during his travels in Italy, hangs nearby; the loose, spirited application of paint used to suggest the outline of her dress complements her spritelike, highly finished face. And in a conté crayon drawing by his precocious son, Picasso’s father, José Ruiz Blasco, appears as a man-about-town, dressed in an overcoat with collar upturned, a rolled copy of the magazine Gil Blas Illustré jammed into his pocket. Hat in hand, with lips parted, he seems to have been caught off-guard by a passer-by in the streets of Barcelona.
In retrospect, don José’s appearance in this gallery is also the first moment in the show when we sense what kind of overbearing presence that his father–or, perhaps, father figures–might have had over Picasso. Across the gallery from the portrait of his father hangs a self-portrait by a 14-year-old Picasso, paired with the Clark’s self-portrait by Degas, aged 24. Picasso’s is a dark canvas; the sense of teenage angst is expertly captured in the young man’s downwardly cast eyes and almost fretful appearance. At the time the picture was painted, Picasso was working under the watchful, encouraging eye of his father; a painter in his own right who taught art at academies in Malaga and Corunna, don José was his son’s first instructor and mentor. Recognizing his son’s talents from an early age, don José worked tirelessly to help develop young Pablo’s skills, encouraging him to study the Old Masters and emerging modern styles alike. Although Picasso deeply respected his father and his chosen career and clearly flourished under his tutelage, one wonders about the pressures the adolescent must have felt under such close scrutiny. In this light, the self-portrait takes on a sullen, perhaps even defiant air — “I refuse to look you in the eye. ” Perhaps not so surprising then that the artist would gain such a reputation as a rebel against convention.
Fathers and sons come full circle in final section of the exhibition, which focuses on the elderly Picasso’s reflections on the work and person of Degas, whom he identified as his artistic father. That he considered their bond to be a familial one is telling: although the two men never met in person, Picasso felt his relationship to the elder artist to be so close, so intense, that it was marked with as many gestures of respect, petulance, admiration, and rebellion as that between any father and son. This lifelong fascination, of course, plays out over the entire exhibition. But it is in the final gallery that Degas literally appears in Picasso’s work, in one (possible) portrait from 1968, and in several plates from a suite of etchings set in brothels. Etched in 1971, shortly before Picasso’s death, the lewd, comical pictures insert Degas–who had also printed several scenes of prostitutes, madames, clients, and brothels, nearly one hundred years earlier–into the action. He stands primly and anxiously to the side of these scenes, a voyeur into this world of women. Knowing that Picasso believed there to be a striking physical resemblance between his father, don José, and Degas could lead one into deep psychoanalytic waters when looking at these pictures. Instead of wading into Picasso’s notions of sexuality–Degas’s, his father’s, and his own–I will instead point you to curator Elizabeth Cowling’s fascinating and expert reading of the prints in the exhibition catalogue. But for now, I will point out a clever, show-closing pairing of Picasso’s early red watercolor portrait of his father with a photographic portrait of Degas that was owned by Picasso–the resemblance between these two father figures is striking.
In the end, I think that Picasso Looks at Degas invites us to consider the idea of a “family resemblance” between the two artists not just in terms of similar facial features, but also in terms of their art. By associating Degas with his father, and by going so far as to regard him as something of a father-figure, Picasso suggested that, for better or for worse, his work and practice had in many ways descended from that of the elder artist. In this way, we might think of Degas and Picasso stemming from the same branch on the larger art historical family tree–but a branch that is brambly, twisted, and entangled with many other branches, and that bears some very thought-provoking, um, fruit (to push the metaphor to its limits).
So — after following all these musings on family, be sure to grab yours and head to the Clark this Sunday for Family Day! This year’s extravaganza promises an abundance of exciting activities and events, all connected to Picasso Looks at Degas and our other great summer exhibition, Juan Muñoz, in really creative (and sometimes, downright funny) ways. Mechanical bullrides, flamenco dancing by the spectacular Inés Arrubla, and castell acrobatics (builders of human towers!) will infuse the day with Spanish and Catalonian flavors, as a nod to the shared national heritage of Picasso and Muñoz. Dancers from the Albany Berkshire Ballet and the perfomance artists from the Picasso People troupe will bring the works of both Degas and Picasso to life. Budding artists can try their own hands at printing monotypes or arranging collages, while others might prefer to sit back and watch masterpieces emerge from blocks of ice at the hands of sculptor Craig McConnell. And, riffing on the theme of bathers as explored in Picasso Looks at Degas, our Family Day organizers, Ronna Tulgan-Ostheimer and Monica Henry, are offering the sure-to-be popular “Take a Bath” sprinkler park, where little dancers and artists can cool down after a long day of fun in the sun (we hope!).
Check out the full schedule for the day, which starts at 11 AM and runs till 4 PM, here: http://www.clarkart.edu/visit/event-detail.cfm?ID=13426&CID=7
See you at the Clark!
Sarah Hammond, Curatorial Assistant