Art Review: Picasso & Paper, Royal Academy ‘A Genius at Play’

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I know, I know… Another Picasso show. Surely the guy can’t have anything left in his closet for us to analyse. And, an exhibition centred around paper? I mean, come on. That’s just going to be so limiting, isn’t it?

Oh, people. I had exactly those same thoughts as I made my way up that gorgeous central staircase to the RA’s main galleries. Those were my fears exactly. And that’s coming from one of Picasso’s biggest fans (as an artist – ignoring the monstrous misogyny). But, oh… I came out an hour later utterly overwhelmed and in rapture. This is a stunning exhibition that demonstrates the man’s verve and relentless creativity.

The challenge for me, as I write this review, is how do I filter through the exalted emotions and rushes of amazement in my head to write something concrete and meaningful…

Simply, Picasso used paper – interrogated the possibilities and uses for paper in his work – far more than I ever realised. There are finished pieces of work – mournful beauties from his Blue Period, curvaceous sirens from his ridiculously prolific 1930s era, the famous last self-portrait of him as a deathly skull – and there are sketches and preparatory works.

There’s also works from his Surrealist and Cubist phases where guitars would be little more than cardboard and string, and vivid pastel works drenched in bright pinks and greens of Dora in hats. And there are surprises too… Freestanding works of faces and profiles created solely from folded and cut paper and etched, women bathing brought to life through assemblages of wallpaper and postcards…

You see, I’m building myself up into a frenzy here. And that is actually the risk; that you wander these galleries in a bit of a daze. It does pay to take your time in this vast exhibition and perhaps not every piece is worth an equal amount of your time. Like, for me, I was totally OK wandering past the endless reiterations of Delacroix’s Women of Algiers and the pieces on loan from Musée Picasso (which I’ve visited more than a few times!).

Instead, I spent more time in the gallery focused on the preparatory work for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, fascinated at how more orthodox sketches and arrangements were contorted and worked on until a work far more radical and disruptive emerged.

And there can be no doubt that Femmes a leur toilette is one of the shows highlights – impressive in an exhibition that has so many. After all, how can you possibly ignore a five-metre collage that feels as fresh today as it must have done back in back in 1937 when it was finished? The ripped sections of discarded patterned wallpaper as dresses, paint cards as bathroom tiles, the torn pieces of yellow card as bright painted walls, the ever-familiar multi-perspective representation of women’s faces carved out from multiple shades of red and pink paper. It is so vibrant.

The simple truth that there is brilliance and inventiveness everywhere you turn in this show. The man was an arrogant prick, for sure (there’s a famous exchange referred to in the text on the walls in this show that when asked by a restauranteur to do a quick doodle on a napkin, Picasso retorted that he only wanted to pay for his meal, not the restaurant) but, artistically and creatively, he was on another level from everyone else. He simply was.

Royal Academy of Arts, London, to 13 April. Admission from £18.

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