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Picasso and the allure of language

By Sarah Hall
shall@salisburypost.com
DURHAM ó When Provost Peter Lange spoke to reporters assembled to preview the newest exhibit at Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art, “Picasso and the Allure of Language,” he observed that many people travel to Paris to view paintings of Picasso, but he had walked to this exhibit from his house.
And while we aren’t that close, Salisburians need make only a short drive to Durham to be treated to the sight of paintings by one of the world’s most famous artists. So famous, in fact, it was a challenge for the exhibit’s curators to come up with a new angle, a new way of looking at Picasso.
Curator Susan Fisher dived in and came up with a fresh idea. She didn’t focus on Picasso the painter. Instead the exhibit examines Picasso the poet and the influence of the written word in his art. He began writing seriously in 1935 and over 24 years wrote hundreds of poems and even two full-length plays.
He also illustrated books, incorporated words into his paintings, and enjoyed the company of a circle of writers in Paris, including a close personal friendship with American writer Gertrude Stein.
“Picasso and the Allure of Language” was organized by the Yale University Art Gallery and curated by Fisher, the Horace W. Goldsmith Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Yale, with support from the Nasher Museum.
Enthusiasm for the exhibit was evident in remarks by Sarah Schroth, the museum’s senior curator, who says she “fell in love” with the exhibit, so much so that she says Fisher had to “put up with me being very unprofessional.”
Schroth pointed out the way in which Picasso’s creative process is much like writing, with a draft, revision, development of characters, and even plot.
A fascinating part of viewing the works in person is that by getting up close to some of the paintings, viewers can see evidence of this revision process on the canvas, such as in the case of “First Steps.” It depicts a child being supported from behind by a woman, but x-rays reveal an earlier version with a child in a chair. Looking closely, part of the chair can still be detected.
Next to this painting is a rough draft showing how Picasso used a newspaper to form the shape of the toddler’s legs in the painting, tracing the shape of the newspaper columns.
The exhibit includes a collage from 1914 which Picasso created from a calling card left by Stein and Alice B. Toklas when they came to call on the artist and found he wasn’t home. And visitors to the exhibit can push a button and hear Stein’s voice, recordings of her reading her “portraits” of Picasso.
When it came to book illustrating, Picasso truly thought “outside the box” as evidenced by an example in the exhibit showing his illustration in the margin at the edge of the page, not in the body of the text.
In addition to Picasso works, the exhibit includes paintings of Picasso contemporary Georges Braque.
A separate, complementary exhibit, “Africa and Picasso,” contains works from the artist’s own collection of African art.
Picasso will be the center of attention at the Nasher Museum in the coming months, with a free family day, poetry night, panel discussions, films, workshops, and even a new ballet, “Picasso,” to be performed by Carolina Ballet.
“Picasso and the Allure of Language” will remain at Duke until Jan. 3, 2010. General admission is $10.
For more information, visit www.nasher.duke.edu.

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