A show on Pablo Picasso may seem an odd occurrence in Florence, but the exhibition Picasso and Spanish Modernism at Palazzo Strozzi makes a cogent case for its location with the very first objects we encounter: a 1963 painting of The Painter and the Model, and a copy—from a Florentine library—of Ambroise Vollard’s luxurious 1931 edition of Honoré de Balzac’s short story The Unknown Masterpiece (first published in 1831) with Picasso’s illustrations. The Balzac illustrations range from a pure classical line worthy of Flaxman to an equally pure, revolutionary abstraction, and sometimes both tendencies can be found, arrestingly, in a single image.
By the end of his life, Picasso had become an Old Master in his own right, but not before he had devoured the works of past Old Masters with his all-seeing, all-hungering eye and processed them into something new. Like Leonardo da Vinci, he continually accounts for the world, in various media, by way of his own ravenous sight, and like Leonardo Picasso draws his fellow creatures, human and animal, with eyes that flash with intelligent life, from the clutch of fishes in his painting Conger Eels (1940) to the agonized horse whose scream reverberates through all the sketches leading up to the great Guernica—not to mention the women who weep, some at the cruel 1937 German bombing raid on a defenseless Basque town, the first civilian bombing of World War II, some for the sheer agony of loving Picasso.
In the past few years, under James Bradburne, the Anglo-Canadian director of the Palazzo Strozzi Foundation, this big Renaissance mansion has become a home for madcap genius, its ponderous doors thrown wide open to the city, its coffee shop and friendly benches ministering to weary passersby whether or not they climb the stairs to see what is being shown. The exhibitions, meanwhile, which have included Imperial China, Galileo, Bronzino, Jacopo Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino, the Russian Avant-Garde, and the fifteenth-century “Springtime of the Renaissance,” have been coming along at a consistent rate and at a consistent standard of quality; they’ve also been bolstered by a remarkable children’s program—every exhibition has its own child-level labels, a special children’s book, and twelve exquisite little custom-made suitcases: bags of tricks for families to take around on their visit.
Much of this effervescent activity is Bradburne’s doing, and the fact that a non-Italian should soar on such extraordinary flights of fancy inevitably grates on a certain local chauvinism that has persisted, to largely adverse effect, since the Middle Ages. What has made Florence flourish, then and now, is the meeting of people and cultures: the huge Flemish altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes that Tommaso Portinari brought back from Bruges in the 1470s (now a treasure of the Uffizi Gallery) made Florentine painters better because of the challenges it posed to their skill; the Medici built their fortune by dealing with France and Spain; the Florentine statesman who inspired the Founding Fathers of the United States, Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo, was a Habsburg from Austria. As a foreigner in Florence, Picasso is in good company.
He is also in good company in this exhibition, which focuses not only on the master, but also on the community of Spanish artists who sought, like Picasso, the excitement of working in early-twentieth-century Paris, who drew inspiration from his presence among them, and then from his legacy. (One of the most memorable objects in the exhibition is also one of the tiniest: a little cedarwood model by Alberto Sánchez for the sculpture There is a Way for the Spanish People that Leads to a Star, circa 1937, a delicately beautiful effort to give crystalline form to the idea of aspiration.)
After succinctly opening with Picasso in his studio and the Vollard Balzac (Palazzo Strozzi has raised this kind of capsule summary to an art form all its own), the exhibition presents the artist in all his infinite variety, spanning more than fifty years, from 1909 to 1963, and various forms of media: painting, sculpture, books, and an experimental film, José Val del Omar’s 1934-1935 Vibration of Granada, continuously projected in a small side room. Along with the Head of a Woman, probably a portrait of Fernande Olivier, painted as a Cubist study in brown between 1909 and 1910, we are presented with almost contemporaneous portraits of Dora Maar and Marie-Thérèse Walter from 1939, one a soft-edged attempt to capture an evanescent subject in mid-motion, the other a harshly angled, fragmented head cocked above a rounded, sketchy body, and, on the opposite wall, the Conger Eels, painted one year later as beings no less sentient than the women.
Two Cubist paintings, María Blanchard’s Woman with Guitar (1917) and a Harlequin with Violin by Juan Gris (1919), still transmit all the excitement that first accompanied this new way of looking at things, but they also produce a marvelous harmony of color by hanging side by side, with their forest greens, turquoises, and pinkish tans working against one another. This acute sensitivity to color holds true in every room of the exhibition, thanks to the inspired eye of curator Eugenio Carmona. Every object on display draws energy and meaning, even beauty, from the presence of its companions, and only after several rooms devoted to the heated pursuit of abstract form can a collection of figurative paintings seem quite so ponderous and busy, though the paintings are fascinating in themselves, like The Blind Musicians (1921) of Daniel Vásquez Diaz, where the sightless organist plays from a blank score.
From here, the white walls of Palazzo Strozzi suddenly turn to black, and we are on the tortuous road to Guernica. The emotional centerpiece of the exhibition is certainly the series of drawings that led Picasso to that extraordinary work. The artist had already been exploring a recurrent image of the Minotaur, led through the darkness by a radiantly innocent girl, when the bombing occurred. Overnight his imagery changed to weeping women, some holding their dead children, and the shrieking, wounded horse, whose agony somehow gives the most potent voice to the outrage these scenes stir in us.
If Pablo Picasso is the Old Master of this collection, Joan Miró is its eternal adolescent. Carmona has chosen atypical works, from an early Fauvist-inspired landscape Siurana, the Path from 1917 to the energetic black broad-brush curlicues on turquoise that make up Birds in Space of 1946, all to show that Miró led a life in art as long and full of changes as Picasso’s own. By comparison, another Picasso The Painter and the Model from 1963 looks uncannily like an image of Rembrandt painting Saskia, and perhaps it is.
The children’s book to emerge from this exhibition is called No More War: Children’s Experience of Armed Conflict, 1914-2014, and collects, in Italian and English, brief reports of children’s experiences of wars ranging from World War I to the current bloodbath in Syria. Elderly Italians remember the terror of living under Allied bombardment; letters and pictures from Syrian children in Jordanian refugee camps remind young readers that these fears are not only things of the past. The little book provides a somber accompaniment to an exhibition which is certainly rooted in the troubled history of Spain, but which leaves memories, above all, of lightness and color and ravishing shapes.
Picasso and Spanish Modernism is showing at Palazzo Strozzi through January 25, 2015.