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The Three-Dimensional Pablo Picasso

The prolific Spanish artist maintained an internal dialogue over whether he should sculpt or paint

THE photographer Brassai exhaustively recorded Picasso's sculpture with his camera. He also wrote down some of Picasso's words about sculpture.

``It seems strange to me,'' Picasso told him, ``that we ever arrived at the idea of making statues from marble. I can understand how you can see something in the root of a tree, a crevice in a wall, a corroded bit of stone, or a pebble.... But marble? It stands there like a block, suggesting no form or image. It doesn't inspire. How could Michelangelo have seen his David in a block of marble?''

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These words are quoted in the catalog to a current people-deluged exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London (through May 8) called ``Picasso: Sculptor/Painter.''

It is rather engaging to overhear the great art wizard of the 20th century expressing a kind of incredulity at the colossal capacity for visualization that enabled the great genius of the High Renaissance to (as his contemporaries more than once phrased it) ``give life'' to a block of marble.

Picasso gave life to bits of corrugated cardboard, twisted wire, discarded or purloined parts of wooden furniture, the toy cars of one of his children, a bicycle seat and handlebars, a wicker basket, a tailor's dummy, nails and screws, and a burner from a gas stove.

The end of the Brassai quote about sculpture makes clear that Picasso's approach was close to the magical metamorphoses of primitive tribal sculpture.

An otherwise ordinary thing or material, often by the merest suggestion, can suddenly be read as a man or animal or fetish. Brassai quotes Picasso as saying: ``If it occurred to a man to create his own images, it's because he discovered them all around him, almost formed, already within his grasp. He saw them in a bone, in the irregular surfaces of cavern walls, in a piece of wood.... One form might suggest a woman, another a bison, and still another the head of a demon....''

Out of his ``found objects'' Picasso - not unlike a conjurer - made birds and baboons, men and skipping children, goats and women. The wicker basket became the goat's rib cage. The bicycle parts became a bull's head. The burner from the gas stove, without any intervention on Picasso's part except to present and title it, became ``The Venus of Gas.''

As the Tate show overwhelmingly illustrates, Picasso gave new life to the whole concept of what sculpture is or might be - but he did so by adopting the primitive and even the childish as an antidote to sophisticated traditions of an academic sculpture. The tradition stemmed from antiquity, as well as from Michelangelo himself, who was a devoted admirer of the sculpture of ancient Rome and Greece.

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One similarity Picasso bore to Michelangelo (and incidentally he kept plaster casts of the renowned Italian's ``Slaves'' in his studio) was his proficiency in a variety of mediums. He had what Giorgio Vasari, early biographer of Michelangelo, described as a ``universal ability in every art.''

If Picasso didn't have a particular craft skill in ceramics, welding, or sheet metal, then he collaborated with those who did. In the process, he achieved an extraordinary combination of cooperation and deliberate challenge to the established limitations of the technique. Picasso had many works cast in bronze when he felt they should be so preserved, and some proved almost impossible to cast.

But the one traditional technique of sculpture he did not pursue, at least in any conventional sense, was carving.

John Golding, who, with Elizabeth Cowling, selected the works for this exhibition, proposes the idea in his catalog introduction that ``carving was simply too lengthy and laborious an activity for an artist of Picasso's questing, restless spirit.''

But Michelangelo was a restless, questing spirit if ever there was one, and carving was his lifelong preferred method.

Perhaps the point is that Picasso was initially a painter, and whatever the time-intensive rigors involved in paint and canvas, particularly on the scale of some of his larger paintings, they are nowhere near as lengthy or as muscularly testing as carving marble or even wood.

Picasso was a fast thinker, and only rarely (as in the ``Demoiselles D'Avignon'') agonized and altered one work over long periods of time.

The unprecedented output of the artist is probably due to his constitutional preference for moving on to the next unused canvas, for gathering fresh materials for a construction, and for making images out of spontaneity rather than pentimenti.

A likely reason for the often fragile or fugitive character of the materials and structuring of many Picasso sculptures is his conception of art as a kind of autobiography. He envisions it as a kind of diary of temporary events, encounters, feelings, excitements, terrors, and enthusiasms, with only a comparatively few giant episodes forming themselves into images (either painted or sculpted) that had lasting significance. That other people have persisted in treasuring some of his most ephemeral squibs of invention has been due to foresight or special recognition rather than the artist's deliberate intention.

Gertrude Stein, for example, preserved a tiny paper construction of 1913 called ``Guitarist with Sheet Music'' by having a special box made for it. On view in this show, it is the only example of a constructed independent figure made during the Cubist period, and even if it were (as the catalog note hypothesizes) meant as a prototype for a larger more permanent version, it never became one.

The Cubist period is, in fact, one of the few times in his long career when sculpture was scarcely even a peripheral activity, and this is surely because Cubism was painting.

Its whole effort and purpose, in two-dimensions, was ``sculptural.'' It was to find how a new convention for depicting the world from every angle might be possible in a flat painting, and it was, in Picasso's own word, ``pointless'' to pursue such an idea in sculpture.

It was not until many years later that Picasso tested the limits of that assumption by exploring how two-dimensional a sculpture could become while still being a freestanding sculpture.

IT was a to-and-fro dialogue for a great many years in this artist's mind between sculpture and painting, painting and sculpture, and it appears to have been one of the most impelling sources of his art.

What this thoughtfully organized confrontation, in exhibition format, of Picasso's works emphasizes is that although he did begin as a painter he cannot be regarded (like Renoir, for instance) as a painter whose sculpture was a secondary activity. At different periods, sculpture clearly led the way in invention and discovery.

Just as Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling figures are sculptural, so are a large number of the paintings of Picasso. Many of his drawings look like sculptural projects in embryo, even when they were not realized as sculpture. And this show makes obvious that when he painted he often thought in sculptural terms.

Golding points out more than once that a painting by Picasso may well act as a surrogate sculpture. And conversely, in one of the artist's often-quoted aphorisms, he shows himself to be one of the better commentators on the complexity of his art: ``Sculpture,'' Picasso said, ``is the best comment that a painter can make on painting.''

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