Review: “Calder-Picasso” at the Musée Picasso, Paris

Running through August 25, “Calder-Picasso” at the Musée Picasso in Paris brings together works by two colossal figures of 20th-century art — Alexander Calder (1898-1976) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). If the connection between these two artists is not immediately apparent, the exhibition carefully teases out the many parallels between their respective œuvres. The 120 or so works in the show are exhibited across 12 spaces, where they are grouped by thematic titles such as “Sculpting the Void” or “Piercing and Folding,” each focusing on a different dimension that unites the two artists’ work. 

In one room, under the title “In the Studio,” two oil paintings hang facing each other: Picasso’s “The Shop at La Californie” (1956) and Calder’s “My Shop” (1955). Beyond the subject matter itself, the resemblances are striking. Both pictures demonstrate the same attention to geometric form, with the canvases and paraphernalia of the studios’ interiors distilled into pared-down compositions, traced in the same self-assured brushwork. The paintings introduce the guiding theme that runs throughout “Calder-Picasso”: the interplay between positive and negative space, or space and non-space. 

In Calder’s picture, several brightly painted canvases are propped up against each other on the left-hand side of the work. They stand in stark contrast to the unpainted studio floors on the right, where the bare canvas is left untouched. Picasso’s “The Shop at La Californie” makes similar use of this contrast between the finished and unfinished: right in the center of the painting is an empty space where a blank canvas stands on an easel. Framed by the greys and browns that fill the rest of the picture, this small white rectangle draws the viewer’s eye. Like an optical illusion, it oscillates between being a white canvas in an artist’s studio and then an incomplete section in Picasso’s composition — a void that jolts the viewer out of the picture’s mimetic world. In so doing, it slips back and forth between a material existence and a symbolic one, somehow managing to be both entirely present and radically absent. 

This question of space — of how something takes up space, deconstructs it or contains it — preoccupied both artists throughout their careers. Many of the works on display at “Calder-Picasso” demonstrate this very clearly, such as Calder’s “Croisière” (1931) and Picasso’s “Figure (Project for a Monument to Guillaume Apollinaire)” (1928). Both wire sculptures, Calder’s traces a spherical volume, perhaps evoking a planet and its orbiting moons; Picasso’s is a configuration of rectangles, triangles, circles and cambered lines, a self-proclaimed “sculpture in nothing […] in void.” In both instances, the wire lines delineate both the physical dimensions of the sculpture itself, as well as the enclosure of the empty space contained within it. They also both exemplify the artists’ translation of two-dimensional drawing into the three dimensions of sculpture. 

In a room entitled “Drawing in Space,” the exploration of dimensions is extended further. Here, three of Calder’s wire sculptures — “Josephine Baker IV,” “Medusa” and “Hercules and Lion” — hang suspended from the ceiling, their outlines duplicated in the shadows they cast on the wall behind. The lines traced by the sculptures and their shadows change according to the viewer’s vantage point, enacting the same multiplicity of perspectives that Picasso translates into oil in the paintings that hang alongside. As the wires of Calder’s sculptures gently tremble, the artwork becomes a hybrid composition of steel, light and movement. And as the curators’ choice of theme would suggest, the final ingredient in this composition is the space surrounding the work itself. Whether that be the space between the sculpture and the back wall, or the space between the work and the viewer, this void becomes an integral part of the artwork.

In one of the most thought-provoking rooms in the exhibition, the curators reflect on how Picasso and Calder moved away from figuration, each instead pursuing a deconstructive approach in their art. Entitled “Making and Deconstructing,” the room houses Calder’s mobile “Scarlet Digitals” (1945) and Picasso’s “Le Taureau” (1945-6), with its 11 increasingly abstracted depictions of a bull. Referring to the latter, the curators insist that it is “not about a reduction of mass but the expansion of gesture.” 

Throughout the exhibition, where everything from human faces to constellations find their simplest expression, this reflection rings true. Beyond the exploration of space, the joy of “Calder-Picasso” is witnessing how the two artists extracted from the natural world its most rudimentary forms, distilling from the messiness of existence its most fundamental constituents — gesture, movement and light. 

Article published on Blouin Artinfo.