All the Picasso That's Fit to Hang 

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art, that sober and staid cultural institution, is letting it all hang out. "It," being their entire collection of works by Pablo Picasso.

Placing nearly every one of their holdings on view, the museum rejected any degree of selectivity that might have come from a curator's watchful eye. But with funds so tight, cleaning out a closet full of Picassos may be the safest way to ensure a blockbuster. Plus, it's an approach that's almost critically unassailable. The exhibition's appeal is based on the fact that it is showing quite literally everything, the good as well as the bad. Who can object when the latter inevitably makes its way in? Even Picasso himself denied all responsibility for "Erotic Scene," the "blowjob" painting that's been hidden in the museum's bowels since 1982, on display here. Modern art curator Gary Tinterow hasn't placed it on view before now, but not because of the erotic subject matter. It's because, as he put it in a recent interview with the New York Times, "it's not very good." That's a telling statement. In the end, Picasso in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through August 1) is not too much more than a reflection of the museum's holdings, which, as it turns out, include a few hits, but plenty of misses too.

Long and meandering, the exhibition runs chronologically from room to room, the walls cluttered with placards. In some instances, there are lengthy explanations next to every hanging work. In a show of 34 paintings, 58 drawings, and 200 prints, it's easy to get bogged down in text. But this is a museum, not a gallery space, and work as autobiographically driven as Picasso's deserves some context. The museum provides it by keeping a tight lens on his personal life, especially the women he was involved with; ballerina Olga Khokhlova is wide-eyed and serene in a 1920 drypoint print, while photographer Dora Maar's heavily lined, abstract portrait nearly vibrates with kinetic energy.

The show opens with Picasso's earliest works, Toulouse-Lautrec-inspired dance hall scenes that are barely recognizable in his body of work. The melancholy paintings of his Blue Period quickly follow, heavily influenced by the suicide of his friend Carles Casagemas and a visit to Saint-Lazare, a jail for prostitutes. The wooden subject of 1903's "The Blind Man's Meal" is just barely lit in a yellow, sickly glow, epitomizing the aesthetic of his melancholy.

Gertrude Stein's portrait draws the viewer into the Rose Period, a room filled with Picasso's saltimbanques and harlequins. Her stone-faced likeness (detail above) was the museum's first Picasso, a donation from the poet herself. "The Actor" (1904-1905), the painting that fell victim to a clumsy museum viewer back in January, is also on view on this room. The museum's conservators repaired the six-inch tear seamlessly; there's no evidence of the damage anywhere on the canvas, at least not to the naked eye. Of course that won't keep every viewer from stopping to scrutinize the painting's lower half, searching in vain for a blemish on the canvas. In fact, even barring the repairs done to "The Actor," the Met's conservators played an unusually large part in the exhibition. An entire gallery is dedicated to the conservation and restoration process that took place before the show, revealing sketches and painted-over mistakes.

Picasso in the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The museum's scanty collection of Picasso's Cubist paintings and collages takes on a whole new life when viewed up close. Cubism tends to exist in the mind's eye as a cold, mechanical mode of painting, but it takes on a decisively human quality at such proximity; Picasso's hand is betrayed by the delicate brushstrokes. A sensitively drawn life-like portrait of art dealer Ambroise Vollard is placed in with the Cubist paintings, a reminder (as if you needed one) that Picasso mastered realism as brilliantly as every other mode of painting.

The post-war paintings are a scattered bunch of terra cotta bathers and Surrealist-inspired creatures. Here, Olga Khokhlova's likeness has devolved from the sweetly drawn drypoint sketch to a massive, abstracted head with four nails for teeth, a consequence of their failing marriage and Picasso's longing for the teenaged Marie Therese Walter.

The colorful linocuts of the 1950s are made up mostly of amusing, formally pleasing portraits. Jacqueline Roque, Picasso's second wife, sat for hers looking prim in a lace ruff, her face pinched and thin. But Picasso's affection for her is betrayed by her wide, expressive eyes, sparkling as brightly as the banal medium will allow. The last room in the exhibition is literally full to bursting with prints from "Suite 347" (1968), a collection of etchings and aquatints rendered by a hand still quick and easy, even at age 87. The playful scenes star wide-eyed princesses and lovers locked in carnal embraces.

Picasso in the Metropolitan Museum of Art offers an encyclopedic chronology of the master painter's work from the Post-Impressionist pastels of the 1890s to his erotic sketches of the 1960s. And while every era of his career is represented, it lacks in crucial areas and exhausts in others. The Blue Period gives way immediately to the museum's small handful of Cubist works with no warning. Cezanne's pervasive influence and that of Iberian sculpture is glossed over, but not smoothly enough. The tête-a-tête between Picasso and Braques that drove Cubism very nearly goes unmentioned. Yet the viewer is inundated by over 200 etchings (of the museum's 400) at the very end of the show. Charming at best and campy at their worst, clearly they do not represent his most intriguing work. To follow Picasso's oeuvre is to follow the story of modern art. But this adaptation is missing too many chapters and relies too heavily on the denouement. Though it's an honest and comprehensive timeline, the show's mundane premise could be more easily forgiven if only the collection was more compelling.

(images copyright Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

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