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Picasso As Cubist Landscape Painter



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Under the direction of

Maria Teresa Ocana

Bulfinch Press

342 pp., $75

The painter of "Guernica" and "Weeping Woman" - of the "Demoiselles d'Avignon" - was also a landscape painter? Well, yes; and now there's a book, based on an exhibition staged in Barcelona, Spain, last winter, called "Picasso: Landscapes 1890-1912."

But wasn't Picasso's metier the human condition? And wasn't he above all an urban artist?

The American writer Gertrude Stein, a friend and patron of Picasso's in Paris in the first years of the 20th century, gave her own inimitable answer to this question in her book "Picasso" (1938):

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"Cubism was commencing.... After his return from Spain with his first cubist landscapes in his hand, 1909, a long struggle commenced.

"Cubism began with landscapes but inevitably he then at once tried to use the idea he had in expressing people.... Spaniard that he is, he always knew that people were the only interesting thing to him."

Picasso painted a number of landscapes without any figures in them. He did so at this crucial turning point of his career when he and Braque, in dialog, started to make the paintings that were popularly nicknamed Cubism - paintings that became a basis for much that developed afterward in 20th-century art.

Though Cubism went through many metamorphoses, it helps to know that it was initially a reinvention of what landscape painting had traditionally been about: such things as the representation in a picture of near and far and all the stages in between; of the integration of foreground and background; of the interplay between space and the objects within that space; and the question of the painter's viewpoint. These things are also, of course, part of painting an interior, a group of figures or a still life, but in a landscape they are more extreme, stretching from the ground underfoot to the expanse of the sky.

Cubist paintings broke with the academic convention of a single viewpoint. It is as if the artist keeps shifting position and then attempts to combine all these different "views" into one canvas. The result is, with varying degrees of comprehensibility, a complex interlocking and overlapping of forms. The subject is transformed into a kind of geometry - or architecture - often rectilinear in its makeup.

Also, conscious of the precedent of Cezanne's paintings, cubist paintings began to fuse the distant and the close in ways that brought the painted image forward to the plane of the canvas itself. It was as though the process of painting and drawing were becoming more prominent than the landscape it depicted.

Similarly, the overall image did not distinguish, as traditional paintings of landscapes had, between spaces and solids. Thus the sky, and the air between objects, often become as solid as the objects. And cubist paintings questioned the assumption that a landscape had to be painted on the spot. All of these traits are evident in "Landscape with a Bridge" of 1909.

The various essays in this new book make clear that Picasso now and then quit Paris and headed for the countryside for fresh air and recuperation. And in some of these retreats - when he lived for a short while in a small village north of Paris called Rue-des-Bois in 1908, for example - he made direct paintings of the landscape. But on other occasions, the human figure almost totally absorbed his attention, as on his trip to Gosol, a village high in the Pyrenees.

Both landscapes on this page are thought to have been painted in the city, in Paris. They might be called memory paintings. But they are even more remote from real landscape experience than that.

The earlier one, "The Reapers," painted in the spring of 1907, has all the markings of being born out of the artist's head rather than from some specific memory. It is an "idyll" - an idealized composition - that has as much to do with the influence of Gauguin as with anything Picasso saw in Gosol or some other country place.

What is fascinating about this exuberantly primitive hymn to harvest is that Picasso painted it simultaneously with one of his most devastatingly negative masterpieces, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon." The latter is not remotely a landscape, but urban, and "low-life": the interior of a brothel. A painting of potent crudity, it is charged with primeval aggression. It is composed of angular, fractured shapes and cursive rhythms, and some art historians have seen it - rather than the landscapes Stein mentioned - as the beginning of cubist fragmentation.

Christopher Green, author of an essay in this book, writes: "I believe that ['The Reapers'] can be seen as an attempt to create a foil to 'Les Demoiselles,' a landscape-based composition which, in stylistic and thematic terms, represented the very antithesis of the brothel painting." Like the two sides of this artist, one side was benign, the other not. But stylistically the two paintings, rural and urban, have more in common than might be apparent at first sight.

"The Reapers" has, compared with "Les Demoiselles," remained little known, partly because it is a small and obviously hasty work, and partly because "landscape" is often considered regressive or even nostalgic in our time.

"Landscape with a Bridge" was painted exactly two years after "The Reapers" and "Les Demoiselles" and it belongs to a different universe. As Stein said, "Cubism was commencing" - although, if the art historians are right, it was painted before Picasso went off into the country in Spain that summer to return later with what she called "his first cubist landscapes in his hand."

It seems, therefore, that Picasso's first unmistakably cubist landscape came out of his head - and out of the challenge presented to him by the landscape and figure paintings of Cezanne - rather than being, as has frequently been said not only by Stein - the fruit of a month or two in the country.

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