The prospect of yet another Pablo Picasso show can make anyone feel cynical. Museums always seem to be plundering his oeuvre for new angles, new opportunities, the next blockbuster. The Spanish master is such a reliably bankable attraction. But the eyes stop rolling the moment they are confronted by the man’s art. For all the ways Picasso can seem so familiar, so over-exposed, the fact remains that his work never fails to astound. He was such a restless, relentless innovator that there are always more pieces to discover, and more discoveries to marvel over. To believe one really knows Picasso—to believe one could ever really tire of Picasso—is hubris.
He is justly celebrated for his work in two dimensions. His canvases are mesmerising—all the more so because no two are alike—and brush strokes and pencil lines can offer intimate access to the gestures and decisions of even the most divine artists. Lesser known are his works of sculpture. Picasso aided in this oversight, agreeing only in 1966, at the age of 85, to lend the dozens of pieces he kept at home for a big show at the Petit Palais in Paris. Though he was constantly toying with the form, the 700-or-so three-dimensional works he created over his long and varied career are still dwarfed by his paintings, which numbered around 4,500 by the time he died in 1973.
Yet Picasso’s sculptures, too, are remarkable, not only for their range, but also for the way they capture his boundlessness as an innovator, his enthusiasm for reinvention and his irreverence as an artist. This was a man who could transform anything—marble and clay, sure, but also wood, paper, pebbles and found junk—into work that is strangely evocative, and often moving. Ahead of most of his peers, Picasso had the audacity to abandon the figure in sculpture, to mix his media (he began painting his sculptures as early as 1914) and to turn once-commercial objects into something he convincingly called art.
This is the lesson of a grand new survey of his sculpture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art—the first of this size and scope in America in decades. Arranged across 11 galleries, the show brings together around 140 influential pieces in at least ten media, all made between 1902 and 1964, and many of them never before exhibited in New York (“She-Goat”, 1950, above). It also reunites pieces that have not been seen together since they were in Picasso’s studio, such as his six “Glass of Absinthe” sculptures from 1914, each of which incorporates a single, cheap metal absinthe spoon.
Some have criticised the show for presenting these three-dimensional works, created in conversation with so many drawings and paintings, on their own, like a stilted monologue. (For example, his impressive “Head of a Woman” from 1909, known as his first Cubist sculpture, has a two-dimensional oil counterpart of the same name from the same year, not included here.) Others have praised the exhibition for shining light on work that Picasso’s paintings often cast in shadow. Both sides have a point. It is a shame to lose sight of the way these pieces catalysed or echoed his two-dimensional obsessions. Yet Picasso often treated his sculptures differently—less seriously, more spontaneously and often more playfully—in a way that might have been eclipsed by his virtuoso canvases. And it is enlightening to discover works like “Metamorphosis I” and “Metamorphosis II”, from 1928, that bear a strong resemblance to the sculptures that made Henry Moore or Alberto Giacommetti famous, yet considerably predate them.
Taken together, Picasso’s sculptures have a refreshing lightness, a delightful ingenuity, unencumbered by the weight of modulated paint. His ability to see something feminine in some metal colanders and sheet metal (“Head of a Woman” from 1929-30); a face in a smooth pebble (he carved a full vitrine of these charming works between 1945-47); or, most famously, a bull’s head in a bicycle seat (“Bull’s Head”, 1942) reveals something joyful: they are the works of an artist who revelled in his power to transform the mundane into modes of expression.
Though Picasso seemed most comfortable having his paintings speak for his ambition, he kept his sculptures close. He began living with them out of necessity, during his years of isolation as a so-called “degenerate artist” in Paris during the second world war. But he clearly found their company comforting. His paintings he would send on to his gallerists and dealers or collect in storage, but his sculptural works decorated every home he lived in for the rest of his life. It is not quite clear why this was, but I like to think it has something to do with the way these sculptures illustrate how the mess of life can be made beautiful if one has a keen eye, sure hands and an ability to improvise.
Picasso Sculpture Museum of Modern Art, New York, to February 7th 2016