Life is not always Black and White: “Picasso Black and White” at the Guggenheim

Picasso: Black and White

Opening of Picasso Black and White. The Romance of the Guggenheim at its finest.

Opening of Picasso Black and White. The Romance of the Guggenheim at its finest.

When viewing Pablo Picasso’s exhibition Picasso Black and White at the Guggenheim, a few thoughts streamed through my head: the black and white color scheme and its connotations to contemporary visual culture, and his dominate subject matter of the solitary person. First, I will address our age-old love affair with black and white. What do these contrasting colors mean to our visual generation, a world of Photoshop saturation and instant Instagram color manipulation through advanced digital technology? Black and white still reigns supreme at times for aesthetic purposes in mechanical arts (photography, television and cinema) and arise specific feelings when viewed because it defines a direct, deeper connection and a hyper-emotionalism in congruence with the surrounding world the Internet Generation does not understand (because of constant mediation through technological outlets like computers and cell phones). When viewing a black and white movie or photograph, it’s romantic and nostalgic, even somber, moody, instigating melancholy in the viewers mind. We think of our pastimes, our parent’s generation, watching family videos on film reels rather than IPhones. In movies and photography grisaille is deep, emotional and unobtrusive, allowing one to really listen to the subtextual dialogue rather than get distracted by the flamboyancy of hyper coloration. In high fashion, it’s chic and timeless. In visual culture, black and white at times can not fail to instigate romance because our generation is so built on a deep-rooted nostalgia for our recent pastime and the love of heartfelt, compassionate communication and interaction with loved ones now lost to our now cyber-overwhelmed world. For the 21st century, black and white is who we once were, and who we really want to be: emotionally involved, romantically inclined, and deeply connected to the world around us.

Picasso in front of "The Kitchen" (Nov. 9, 1949).

Picasso in front of “The Kitchen” (Nov. 9, 1949). Memento Mori to Gustave Apollinaire.

Visual culture and media outlets were once, and still are at times, black and white. Film, television, photography and printing only achieved technological advances during the 20th century to allow color output. People before our time only got their pop culture in doses of grey scale, reading the newspaper, fanning through fashion magazines and watching love stories like Casablanca in monochrome tone. However muted visual culture was during the era of Picasso (he had a long career spanning from the 1890s to the 1960s), painting grey scale would be more than anachronistic, even unheard of. His Avante-Garde contemporary’s pre-WWI, Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc in Der Blau Reiter, Henri Matisse and the Fauves, and Futurists like Filippo Marinetti and Umberto Boccioni lived through over-exaggerated colors, with their large canvases overwhelmed with sweeping color fields. But Picasso was always a monochrome kind of guy, working through his Rose and Blue periods during the end of the 19th century, into his muted Analytic and Synthetic Cubist periods into the first decades of our Modern era. By WWI, Picasso moved past these earlier periods to his mature work, dominated by abstract portraits of solitary woman in grey scale.

Picasso "Swimming Woman" (1930). Model: Marie-Therese Walter, his lover at the time.

Picasso “Swimming Woman” (1934). Model: Marie-Thérèse Walter, his lover at the time.

Now onto the subject matter. Much is left unsaid (or unpainted) in his grisaille oeuvre on view, and even though the solitary figure dominates his canvases, it is not difficult to read between the lines (or the wall labels at the Guggenheim) and realize his solitary portraits are much inspired by his close relations (his lovers, his circle of friends) and his love for social interaction. His Surrealist tendencies really shine as one slowly wavers up the slight incline of the Guggenheim interior; swooping Miro-esque lines burgeon long, sweeping bodies piecemealed with fantastic characterization including oversized Egyptian style profiles and swooping grotesque limbs too exaggerated for the body on view. Within the museums’ soft interior Picasso’s oversized grey portraits exude a sense of delicate melancholy that seems so fitting for his subject matter.

Picasso "The Kitchen" (November 9, 1949): Memento Mori to friend Gustave Apollinaire.

Picasso “The Kitchen” (November 9, 1949): Memento Mori to friend Gustave Apollinaire.

The human body is constant, always, throughout his career (even if it’s not visually present), and in its confinement, it is paradoxical to think that so much attention to social interaction is involved in each portrait. Picasso embeds his love of communication, communion (painting musical instruments, wine, pipes etc.) and social interaction into his stark portraits, and by seeing through the loneliness involved in solitary confinement, and the melancholy of “black and white,” what is subtextual and visually absent in his portraits are the many human interactions involved with Picasso and his loved ones behind the scenes of each canvas. His models were not just figures to paint, but were his romantic lovers; behind each portrait of muses including Olga Khokhlova, Marie-Thérèse Walter and Dora Maar is a visually absent, but very much alive moment in Picasso’s life filled with romantic and social human communication. Memento Mori’s spring up, including ode’s to lost friends (“The Kitchen” (November 9, 1949, dedicated to Gustave Apollinaire), and more famously, reflections on the causalities of war (“Guernica” (1937), “The Charnal House” (1944-45) to name a few pieces on a universal loss of human interaction). Melancholy? Sure. Suffering and despair? Yes. The inundating pain of losing loved ones? All of the above are felt from Picasso’s black and white canvases because they stimulate within viewers a nostalgic connection to people we sometimes lose through technology. Such intense emotions do not have to be depressing, but they do stimulate feeling, an important human characteristic sometimes forgotten. Plus, Picasso is a key player in our love affair with black and white, and the romanticism and emotionalism that follows suit can only inspire one to feel the love resplendent in unmediated communication.


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