- The Washington Times - Friday, October 3, 2003

An unusual kind of sadness envelops the National Gallery of Art’s exhibi- tion “Picasso: The Cubist Portraits of Fernande Olivier.” The display of 78 paintings, drawings and sculptures shows the artist moving away from tra- ditional portrait conventions of capturing a likeness — here, his first love, “la belle Fernande” (the beautiful Fernande) — to evoking her often unhappy image with revolutionary cubist techniques.

It wasn’t easy even for this great master of 20th-century art. Along with the painter Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) fragmented three-dimensional objects and broke them into multiple facets so that people would look at everyday things in completely new ways.

Some of these objects were beautiful women like the artist’s mistress, but this approach didn’t really work in a personal way for poor Fernande. She probably would have wanted her lover to paint her realistically and sensuously, like other academic portraits of that time.

Instead, Picasso shows her not as a love object, but as a vehicle for exploring his exciting new pictorial language. He wanted to move away from conventional Italian Renaissance ways of imaging reality through single-point perspective by breaking up picture planes, creating quickly moving surfaces and extending multiple, jazzy perspectives.

Fernande may not even have sat for the “portraits,” but her real and imagined presence dominates them, says Jeffrey Weiss, curator of the gallery’s Modern and Contemporary Art.

Mr. Weiss says Fernande was ill and unhappy during the 10 months in 1909 when Picasso did the portrait series. She may even have been showing the beginnings of kidney disease. Her body and face were both swollen. The exhibit curator says the artist expressed her unhappiness by twisting the body sideways, rotating her head downward and distorting the neck.

The more Picasso strained toward abstraction, the more her melancholy presence gripped him. This tension is what makes the show interesting. There’s always the electric, metaphoric pulling between his intellect and her spirit. I found it fascinating to follow Picasso’s attempts to reconcile them.

Viewers should waste no time in locating the artist’s important bronze “Head of a Woman (Fernande),” the exhibit’s centerpiece and catalyst for the show. The National Gallery bought the head, one of the artist’s first cubist sculptures, two years ago from a New York gallery and mounted a handsome, complementary exhibit that traces Picasso’s steps toward making it.

For his amazing “Head,” the artist mixes the art of primitive societies in New Guinea and Africa with that of Iberian peoples and further pushes their exaggerations for what looks like a bizarre image. In addition, the gallery makes experiencing the shimmering, black-bronze head even richer by presenting two plaster studies for it from the Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection in Dallas and the Latner Family Collection of Toronto.

I felt reverential before the three tightly clustered, downward-turning heads spotlighted from above. It was not only the eccentric expression of suffering, but also the way the artist massed the facial elements and huge neck. I could feel Picasso’s energy when he grabbed the clay for the original model, applied a hunk below her left eye, swiveled the aquiline nose from upper left to lower right, gouged out the cheeks and emphasized the sexy middle depression of her upper lip. (Unfortunately, the clay original is lost.)

Picasso piles her sensuous, luxuriant hair on the back of her head for a geometrized design. He then carries the curves down to the torsions of the thick neck.

Her heavy, meditative pose expresses sadness. In fact, in the downward, heavy leaning of the “Head,” the artist may have looked to representations of “melancholia” in the Middle Ages. The pose was extremely popular then, especially Albrecht Durer’s engraving of the subject. He showed his “Melencolia” as a winged angel with a darkened, drooped head, sitting immobile and heavy. The similarities are obvious.

In the works accompanying the “Head,” Mr. Weiss begins with the earlier charcoal and oil sketches that somewhat retain Fernande’s likeness and then presents paintings in which she’s more of a motif.

Among the many paintings surrounding the “Head” in the center gallery, “Woman With Pears” shows Picasso beginning to work sculpturally in paint. There’s a push-and-pull between the eyes, nose and lips that makes it more dynamic than the earlier, flatter portraits. He’s clearly occupied with the “melancholia” idea as well. He pulls the neck so far down to almost off the bottom picture plane that I know it’s no kind of plunging neckline.

Mr. Weiss ends the exhibit with Fernande, the “Woman in Green,” sitting up straight — Picasso’s most powerful view of her.

“Woman With Pears” shows Picasso’s move from part-likeness to abstraction. Although he fragmented this bust image of Fernande into triangles, rectangles and curves, the artist gave her the hands, arms, face, nose and hair of a traditional portrait. By setting her eyes on different levels, he even made her look malevolent.

In the latest works of the series in the last gallery, Picasso is still seesawing, “still doing battle with his new language,” Mr. Weiss says.

The artist never did manage to reconcile his intellect and Fernande’s spirit. However, that’s part of the excitement of this unusual and challenging exhibit.

WHAT: “Picasso: The Cubist Portraits of Fernande Olivier”

WHERE: East Building, National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue, NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, through Jan. 18


PHONE: 202/842-6353

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