The Late, Great Picasso

Last century's most celebrated artist didn't let age or fame slow him down

Anyone unfamiliar with the name Pablo Picasso and all it entails -- could such a creature exist? -- might wander through "Picasso: Passion and Creation -- The Last Thirty Years," now at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, in all but complete bewilderment. The works on display focus almost exclusively on the human figure but radically reinterpreted in ways that are sometimes frightening. The brusque brush strokes and bold, impulsive lines aren't quite like anything that came before or after, and yet they're somehow unsettlingly familiar.

The rest of us, of course, recognize the stylistic flourishes -- the dramatic distortions of the human face and body -- as one of the signatures of an artist who, if not the best of the last century, is certainly the era's most famous. And its most influential: As one wall placard notes, "Hardly a painter has lived in the twentieth century who has not had to take Picasso's work into account."

"Passion and Creation" is the splashy opening exhibition at the new Boca Raton Museum of Art at Mizner Park, and it's certainly an attention-getter. Included are 172 works: 24 paintings; 20 drawings; 20 linocuts and woodcuts; 51 ceramics; 56 lithographs, aquatints, and etchings; and a single sculpture. (The total increases if you consider that a handful of works are suites ranging from 13 to 66 individual images.) The show takes up all of the first-floor galleries of the new 44,000-square-foot facility.

When I visited, people were milling around outside waiting for the doors to open. Yet many of these museumgoers seemed a little unsure what to make of this sprawling show. Since it's limited to the last three decades -- 1943 to 1973 -- of Picasso's long, amazingly prolific life, it necessarily excludes the big artistic "statements" for which the artist is so well known. There's no Les Demoiselles d'Avignonhere, no Guernica, not anything even approaching the grandeur of such works.

Not surprisingly some skeptics have dismissed Picasso's later work as the output of an artist in decline, a man who has run out of things to say but continues to speak. That's a bit unfair, as if he were expected to reinvent art endlessly right up to the end.

Instead of focusing on the landmarks, this show chronicles the preoccupations of an artist who had already changed the way we look at art, then went on to indulge his versatility and virtuosity, not to mention seemingly infinite energy, in whatever ways pleased him. "Passion and Creation" is more or less a set of variations on the same themes, the works of an artist whose inventiveness has been so vast that he ends up being his own greatest influence.

It makes sense, then, that most of the two dozen paintings included here revisit the cubism that Picasso and Georges Braque pioneered as a way to get around the two-dimensionality of painting. (Braque likened himself and Picasso to "two mountaineers, roped together.") Whether working on a still life, a landscape, or, more often than not, a portrait, Picasso continued to explore ways of portraying a subject from multiple vantage points simultaneously.

One of the most striking, as well as disturbing, paintings is an oil from 1969 called Bust of a Man III, which plasters the title character against a swath of red-and-yellow¯striped wallpaper that could have come straight out of Matisse. The long, narrow face is more equine than human, and it's framed by a showy hat, long hair, and a frilly garment, all of which serve to identify the man as yet another incarnation of one of Picasso's favorite subjects, the musketeer. He reappears in a monochromatic 1967 oil, Man and Female Nude, with one hand nonchalantly cupping the woman's exposed breast, the other about to put a ring on one of her fingers.

The drawings and graphics that make up more than half of this exhibition also toy with the same subject matter again and again. There are centaurs and satyrs, minotaurs and matadors. (There's a whole section devoted to bullfight imagery.) And in dozens of images, Picasso displays a near obsession with the theme of the artist and his model. It's a far-from-novel theme, of course, but Picasso gets astonishing mileage from it.

In a piece such as the lithograph The Clothed Model (1954), the reasonably realistic woman stands stiffly before the painter on a block of wood or stone, hands clasped in front of her. The sketchily defined artist sits hunched behind his canvas and easel, seemingly disconnected from his model.

A decade and a half later, in the India ink drawing The Painter and his Model (1970), Picasso strips away the woman's clothing and presents the material in a straightforward and unadorned manner. The plump model is drawn in clean, simple lines, and the artist, sitting cross-legged at her feet, is as impassive and enigmatic as a Buddha.

Things get really interesting in the "347 Suite" and "156 Suite," two series that were part of a frenzy of graphic creativity in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the artist was in his late eighties. (An entire 1969 issue of the short-lived Avant Garde magazine featured more than 50 pieces from the "347 Suite.") Here Picasso turns to explicit erotica, with crudely etched genitalia, both male and female, turning up repeatedly among the swirling lines and distorted faces and bodies.

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