Caught in the act of creation

Picasso's sculptures were as vital as his paintings in the development of his intense vision.
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The Independent Online

"I work the way another man writes his diary," remarked Picasso one day, "history will make the necessary selection of what I do." So far, however, the art world has preferred to portray Picasso as a genius who never put a foot wrong, and little attempt has been made to sift through his vast production, and weed out the unsuccessful work. As a result Picasso exhibitions tend to be something of a mixed bag, with good, bad and indifferent all muddled up together.

"I work the way another man writes his diary," remarked Picasso one day, "history will make the necessary selection of what I do." So far, however, the art world has preferred to portray Picasso as a genius who never put a foot wrong, and little attempt has been made to sift through his vast production, and weed out the unsuccessful work. As a result Picasso exhibitions tend to be something of a mixed bag, with good, bad and indifferent all muddled up together.

The show now on at the Centre Pompidou in Paris is no exception. Dedicated exclusively to Picasso's sculptures, it presents almost 300 pieces, spanning 60 years of activity. The work comes literally in all shapes and sizes, and the materials used are equally varied - plaster and metal are the most common, but there is also wood, paper, cement, as well as a scrapyard of objets trouvés.

Picasso the sculptor had the same breadth of vision as Picasso the painter or draughtsman. Unlike, say, Degas or Matisse, who saw sculpture as secondary to their painting, Picasso wanted his to be autonomous, and to develop in parallel with his painting: so the pictorial lacerations of the Cubist period are matched by jagged still-lifes made of sheet metal and strips of wood, while generous oversize female heads and busts offer a counterpoint to the sensual and fleshy portraits of the Thirties. Later on, the exuberant post-war period in the South of France gives birth to a long line of formal puns and jokes, the most famous being the bull's head made from a bicycle saddle and handlebars, though the baboon, whose head is made with a model car, is just as witty.

Unfortunately the dialogue between painting and sculpture can only be guessed at here, as no drawings or paintings have been included. This is a pity as Picasso's painting, with its firm drawing and solidly modelled forms, was never far from sculpture; and there are many points in the exhibition when a comparison between different techniques would have been helpful and stimulating.

Picasso showed little interest in exhibiting or selling his sculpture, yet it was vital to the development of his art. The Cubist experience had proved to him that the forms inside things were just as beautiful and interesting as those visible on the surface; and sculpture allowed him to explore formal relationships in a way that was not possible on paper or canvas. "I want to shatter surfaces, he once said, "in order to bring out the deep relationships that I have always felt existed between things". In sculpture the intellectual violence implicit in this thought was balanced by physical exertion, mind and body together walked a tightrope between the impulses of destruction and creation.

Picasso's choice of materials clearly reflected his purpose: he avoided carving in stone, and invariably used techniques which allowed him to change course, to add and take away with ease and speed. Plaster was ideal, and could also serve as a sort of glue for other materials and objects - gloves, plants, a basket - which might be added.

At certain moments of his life Picasso's sculptural thinking had an extraordinary intensity, capable of developing radically different ideas at the same time. In 1928 his desire to analyse form led him to produce "transparent" figures made with metal rods; two years later he created dream-like arrangements of objects, which thrilled his Surrealist friends, while in 1931 he produced his first biomorphic figures, which were to have such a profound influence on British sculptor, Henry Moore.

Such virtuosity and inventiveness cannot, however, disguise the fact that much of the work on show here is sketchy and unfinished. Picasso was impatient and restless, and did not want to waste time (as he saw it) on the laborious craftsmanship that is part and parcel of their work for most sculptors. What interested him was the act of creation. Once he had found a form that satisfied him, he was ready to move on, however raw the piece looked.

Like Leonardo's notebooks, Picasso's sculpture is a testament to the artist's insatiable curiosity. And like the great Renaissance artists, he constantly moved between different activities so as to achieve as powerful and complete a synthesis of experience as possible. To that extent individual pieces count for less than the vision which unites them; and the courage and generosity of Picasso's vision are certainly worth celebrating.

'Picasso Sculpteur', Centre Pompidou, Paris, until 25 Sept, 11-9. Closed Tuesday

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