Picasso Takes on the Masters

A book by Susan Galassi explains why the artist with an eye on the future kept returning to the art of the past

"A painter's atelier should be a laboratory," said Pablo Picasso in 1945. "One doesn't do a monkey's job here: one invents." Picasso, the inventor of whole new systems of painting for the 20th century, never aped the accomplishments of past masters. Yet throughout his career he explored issues of style, structure and meaning by creating variations of works by other artists.

These explorations are the subject of a book by Susan Galassi, associate curator of the Frick Collection in New York and a Picasso scholar. Published by Harry N. Abrams, Picasso's Variations on the Masters: Confrontations with the Past documents the artist's lifelong use of his predecessors' work as a spark for his own creative processes, and as a way of demonstrating his own place in the tradition of European art.

In his early years, Picasso's occasional variations were fueled by a sense of competition with past artists. In Odalisque, After Ingres (1907-08), for example, Picasso translates the reclining nude in Ingres's Grand Odalisque into his own Cubist style, taking Ingres's subtle distortions of the figure several degrees further. Many of the variations are infused with the artist's sense of humor; in a parody of Manet's Olympia, Picasso inserts a portrait of himself into the scene in the role of the courtesan's client.

In 1957, at age 76, Picasso spent four intense months producing 45 variations of Velázquez's masterpiece Las Meninas from 1656. These works, Galassi points out, are a "process of continuous transformation." This transformation is most visible in the 14 works that focus on the central character of Velázquez's painting, the young Spanish princess. She appears in some as a series of refined Cubist abstractions and in another as a glow of expressionist energy; in a more naturalistic version the artist gives her the features of his daughter Paloma. In Picasso's mind there was no more truth in the last painting than the first; for him creativity involved constant change. "A picture," he had said to a friend in 1935, "lives a life like a living creature, undergoing the changes imposed on us by our life from day to day."

Picasso's work remains extremely popular. "I think we've stayed interested in Picasso because his work encompasses so much of the past," says Galassi. "Although he set up a whole new concept of art for the 20th century, he was working within the context of art history. The dialogue was always there."

By Alison McLean

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