It’s said that greatness attracts greatness, and Paris in the early 20th century was home to many of the greatest artists of the century—people such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall. Picasso, arguably the most famous modern artist in the world, even today; Matisse, the only painter Picasso considered a rival and a master of line; and Chagall, a one-of-a-kind artist whose unique style influenced several important art movements. These men not only knew one another, but drew inspiration from each other, an exchange you can witness for yourself at Sangre de Cristo Arts Center’s current exhibit, “Picasso, Matisse, Chagall,” a collection of over 70 prints by all three modern masters.
Bringing Modern Masters to Pueblo
How did such a major collection come to Pueblo? The credit lies largely with recently appointed executive director Jim Richerson, who was familiar with the anonymous owner of these works. Richerson stated that he was willing to do whatever it took to bring this collection to Pueblo. This first and foremost involved putting the collector at ease by hiring someone the collector knew to perform the initial inventory of pieces, then having the curator, Liz Szabo, personally transport the collection from Illinois back to Pueblo. The 70-plus pieces never left her sight during the approximately 20-hour drive.
On the Sangre’s end, the Arts Center hired more security guards in addition to the number required for American Alliance of Museums certification, installed climate control in the White Gallery, and switched out all the lights in the gallery in favor of bulbs that would not bleach or damage the paper of the prints.
Each piece was inspected before and after shipping for quality. Prints with minor damage were, with the owner’s permission, repaired before being put on display. Unlike with many other shows at the Sangre, the setting up of the gallery was limited to the curator and assistant curator and a few helpers, all of whom wore gloves during the hanging.
Perhaps more important than how the exhibit came to Pueblo is the why. The collector is not a Rockefeller, trust fund baby, or billionaire industrialist—the type of person one might unthinkingly associate with collecting modern art masters. An optometrist by trade, he comes from a middle-class background and lives in the iconically provincial mid-west city of Peoria. His collection is a reflection of his fascination with the way people see—and indeed, many of the prints in this exhibit play with how people look: at other cultures, other people, and even other artists. As for why he’s willing to share his collection, the collector believes in art’s power to inspire anyone, whether they have an artistic bent themselves or not.
The number and variety of pieces by Picasso in this exhibit is really unprecedented in Colorado. Even the Modern Masters show at the Denver Art Museum only had a single painting representing Picasso, Matisse and Chagall respectively (and not the greatest examples at that); the Sangre currently has nearly 80 pieces, the majority of which are by Picasso and cover most of the major art styles and periods of his long life—including his many affairs and marriages.
Picasso was an odd duck. Short, aggressive, a Spaniard through and through, much of Picasso’s work—and behavior—was a reflection of his machismo. This is why bulls are such a common motif in his work—not only are they a symbol of his native country of Spain and the matador, but of manliness.
The women Picasso loved were also a major theme in his work. His wives, mistresses, girlfriends, and even children were a reflection of his virility and prowess, while at the same time serving as his muses. It’s been said that with every new love affair, he started a new art style. While that’s not exactly true, it is true that Picasso’s paintings, drawings, prints and ceramics served as a diary of sorts, documenting his emotional state and major life events. He rarely painted or drew people from life, particularly as his career advanced—he didn’t need to. Instead, Picasso drew from his extraordinary visual memory and created portraits that reflected how he saw and felt about his subjects, rather than how they actually looked.
A perfect example of that is Picasso’s 1939 portrait of Dora Maar, which twists her face around so that we see her from multiple perspectives. Red-faced, Maar looks almost like a bull herself. Picasso’s portraits of Maar were rarely attractive, although she herself was beautiful. A fellow artist and Spaniard, Maar’s troubled, aggressive, and emotionally unstable personality fascinated Picasso from their very first meeting at Les Deux Magots, where Maar cut her own hand multiple times as part of a “knife game.” Picasso kept the blood-soaked glove she wore that day and displayed it on a shelf in his studio. Meanwhile, Maar’s rival for Picasso’s affections, Marie-Thérèse Walter, looks dreamy and soft, wide-eyed and innocent (as she should be; she was only seventeen when they began their affair), nearly the complete opposite of Maar.
Unlike Maar, Picasso’s portraits of Francoise Gilot usually present her as calm, stable, almost imperturbable. You can picture her as her family’s emotional center, a lodestone or Rock of Gibraltar. Some say Gilot was the only woman who ever broke Picasso’s heart, or perhaps it was just his ego. Either way, Picasso’s portraits of Gilot are some of his most fascinating, particularly the beautiful “Françoise” from 1946 that’s part of this collection.
Picasso’s rebound relationship after Gilot was with Jacqueline Roque, a woman almost 50 years his junior. Unlike Maar, Walter, Gilot, or even his daughter, Picasso almost never depicted Roque facing the viewer. Her eyes are always downcast, as they are in the expertly shaded yet deliciously graphic “Jacqueline Reading.” Roque’s and Picasso’s relationship actually stuck; they remained together until his death.
By far the most touching and engaging portrait in this collection, however, is the double portrait of Picasso’s children, Claude and Paloma, which he finger painted—literally, he’s telling us, he made them with his own two hands. The portrait is extraordinarily expressive and shows off the childrens’ differing personalities. Paloma is light, airy, the sweeping of Picasso’s fingertips suggesting constant movement. Claude is dark and solid like his mother, Gilot, the firm press of Picasso’s fingers underscoring the child’s more serious personality. The yin/yang characteristic of “Paloma et Claude” gives the portrait a symbolic sensibility that makes it even more compelling. If you look closely, you can see the prints of all ten of Picasso’s fingers.
Below this portrait is an homage created by 13-year-old Maya Jain of Peoria, Illinois, a piece the collector treasures as a symbol of art’s ability to inspire a new generation of artists.
This exhibit isn’t all portraits, however. Like many avant-garde artists, Picasso, Matisse, and Chagall all had a fascination for mythological subjects. The minotaur in particular is a motif one finds circulating in the Parisian art community through much of the early 20th century. The minotaur was a potent symbol of men’s more bestial urges, the id hiding at the center of one’s psychological labyrinth. The twisting lines, aggression, and sexual tension in Picasso’s “Minotaur Embracing a Woman” makes it comparable to any of his great paintings. We both fear for the woman and admire the beauty and strength of the minotaur, a feat of visual mastery. Compare Picasso’s depiction of the minotaur to Matisse’s, which seems light and playful, almost as if it’s dancing. Instead of depicting the beast’s violent nature, Matisse uses the unrelenting black background of his linocut print to suggest the dark nature of the subject.
A generation older than either Picasso or Chagall, Matisse started his avant-garde career as a member of the “fauves,” or wild beasts, so-called because of group’s bold use of color. That understanding of color, elegant silhouettes, and effortless use of line became a hallmark of Matisse’s work long after the fauves disbanded. Most people are probably familiar with his series “The Dance,” or his design of the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence, also known as the Matisse Chapel.
Most of the prints by Matisse at the Arts Center are portraits of people from the Antilles, which Matisse made for a book of poetry by John-Antoine Nau. Unlike Picasso, Matisse did create portraits directly from a model; unlike most other artists, though, he never looked at the page or canvas as he did so. The result is a balance of simple, effortless lines that seems to capture the personality of each individual. Matisse adored the high cheekbones and aquiline noses that characterized the faces of the Antillean people he captured in these portraits.
Compared to Picasso and Matisse, the work of Chagall seems soft and romantic. The most famous Jewish painter of the 20th century, Chagall was born in a Russian shtetl and raised a Hasidic Jew (think “Fiddler On the Roof”—in fact, the title of that musical takes its name from one of Chagall’s own paintings, “The Fiddler”). Jews weren’t allowed to practice art in Russia, though Chagall did so openly for several years before moving to Paris in 1910, when cubism was the “it” art movement. Chagall eschewed cubism—and all other movements and schools—and maintained his own personal style, which was colorful, quirky, and dreamlike, almost fantastical.
A perfect example of that style is the lithograph, “Joy,” the largest Chagall ever printed. Ghostly figures circle a happy couple, reading, playing music, perhaps dancing and laughing. Chagall’s delicate use of color is masterful here. As Picasso once said, “When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is.” Color is an emotion, an atmosphere, and a story. But what I really love about this lithograph is the setting: joy isn’t just having someone to love, listening to music, dancing, or a reading good book. Joy is nighttime in Paris.
Chagall was also fond of religious subjects. He’d always been interested in the Bible, he said, and even made a trip to Palestine to sketch Old Testament-era sites. But Chagall’s biblical subjects weren’t confined to the Old Testament: he frequently depicted New Testament scenes as well, particularly those of the life of Jesus and the Crucifixion. You can see an example of one of Chagall’s Crucifixion scenes in “Artist on a Black Background.” Although it may seem odd for a Jewish artist to associate himself so strongly with might be called the quintessential Christian scene, Chagall was following in the footsteps of a long line of Jewish artists who reclaimed Jesus as both a historical and religious figure in order to argue against anti-Semitism. Decades earlier, before the outbreak of World War Two, Chagall had painted “Yellow Crucifixion,” where he drew a connection between the prosecution of Jesus and the fate of the Sturma, a ship that carried Jewish refugees who drowned when no country would allow them to disembark. A similar plea for understanding might be found in the Old Testament scenes on view at the Sangre, all of which depict people pleading for help or understanding.
These three men—Picasso, Matisse, and Chagall—shaped and continue to shape our understanding of what art, beauty, and freedom is. They not only shared their own experiences and work, but inspired others to do so. An opportunity to see the works of these masters, especially works as imitate and personal as many of these prints, is precious and not to be missed.
“Picasso, Matisse, Chagall” will be open at the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center through January 11, 2015. The first Friday of every month will be free to the public starting in October. For hours and ticketing information, visit http://www.sdc-arts.org.