Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris just opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It's a great show, with some astonishing masterpieces - but before I say anything else, I have to be sure to emphasize that the entire exhibit is from the museum's own collection, an amazing statement for such depth and breadth. The exhibit covers the firsthalf of the 20th century, with all that implies for art, progress, and human tragedy. The viewpoint of Paris was pivotal for what was going on and these artists are good witnesses, even the ones whose names are not as well known as the title character. The show begins with Picasso's 1906 Self-Portrait, a kind of trumpet blast for what was to come in terms of stripping away the old order and starting something new. Analytical Cubism is well represented by both Picasso and Braque, an unusual chance to see this phase in depth, and then we see how their ideas broaden out to be understood - and misunderstood - by a wide range of others. The 'Salon Cubism' is a central feature of the show - a replication of the viewing experience in the early 20th century, complete with upholstered banquette and dark walls hung from floor to ceiling. A featured example is "Tea Time," by Jean Metzinger, in which the artist attempted to make Cubism accessible to the ordinary person - it seems very mundane and banal to modern eyes, but was the most celebrated 'Cubist' painting of the time. Leger's 'The City' is here - one of the great offshoots of the original idea, mixing Cubist principles with a zingy Futurist chaos. There is also an interesting look at the 'backlash' to progress after WWI, when we see even Picasso seeking a comforting 'NeoClassicism." By the end of the period Paris, Europe, the world, and these artists are tired and in shock at what has transpired. Powerful responses, especially the paired sculptures by Picasso (Man with a Lamb) and Jacque Lipchitz (The Prayer) end the show with a dark cry of anguish. There's a gentle quality in Picasso's work, however, that as in the Guernica, still seems to hold out some hope for the future; one of his great strengths was that he was always looking forward.
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