Review: ”Picasso and Paper” – Virtual Exhibition

‘Genius’ is the buzzword inextricable from Picasso, who is hailed as such (at least in part) due to the stylistically subversive nature of his works. What feels far less radical is the constant influx of exhibitions throughout major art institutions, re-examining and claiming to offer a different perspective on how to view the notorious artist’s 80-year long career, while in reality exhausting the number of critical and creative ways to present his works. Here enters the Royal Academy’s newest offering ‘Picasso and Paper’, an exhibition focussed on the highly experimental medium of paper within the titular artist’s career. Having opened mid-January, the exhibition was closed on March 17 and uploaded to YouTube as a ‘virtual exhibition tour’.

It became quickly apparent that ‘Picasso and Paper’ is a highly missable exhibition. Curated as if taken from an art history textbook, the spectator is guided through a retelling of Picasso’s life through his art. Chronologically, it transitions from his humble beginnings as a prodigal child through to his Blue period, onto the foundations of Cubism, and so on. Monotonous stormy blue and grey gallery walls are filled with swaths of female nudes rendered in pencil and watercolour, reminiscent of the male-only nude figure drawing workshops from the RA’s history rather than Picasso’s subversive practice.

Featured on the exhibition poster, ‘Head of a Woman’ (1962), a fluid outline of a woman’s profile, is aesthetically pleasing alongside a row of voluptuous nude, almost celebratory female figure cut-outs. Yet the act committed by Picasso of taking scissors to the female figure and hacking away in a brutal and jarring manner, ‘tearing, cutting and burning’ it, makes it difficult to separate the artist’s problematic biography and violent misogyny from his artwork, when sexual brutality and violence against female bodies features so heavily and explicitly as the basis for his oeuvre. Sketches of Marie-Thérèse Walter, the artist’s teenage lover, are disfigured and swollen with cheeks and lips protruding at awkward angles, her features rearranged in sickening images of a violent fantasy. The wall panels hint at this violence without examining or challenging it, likening a series of guitar sculptures to ‘threatening fetish objects’, and describing the artist’s alter-ego, ‘the lustful minotaur’ as an acceptance of his Freudian psycho-sexual desires which are, at best, uncomfortable within in contemporary context. Through this, the RA becomes complacent in perpetuating the misguided ‘tortured genius’ narrative.

The virtual element of the tour resulted in further disdain on my behalf. It was pleasant not having to grapple with the mass crowds found at the RA, yet almost impossible to fully experience the layout of the exhibition due to the constant panning shots showing different walls; within these shots, the majority of works could be only viewed fleetingly from afar. 

Digitisation is a major struggle for art institutions in the digital age as they struggle to engage crowds and widen accessibility, and typically they have been late and slow to create digital content. Notably, YouTube provides a free, accessible platform that contrasts the high prices of exhibition tickets in the RA, and it begs the question whether this could set a precedent for accessible exhibition content across art institutions in the future. Yet returning to my original argument on the futility of curating Picasso’s works, creating digital exhibitions for such renowned artists seems pointless considering the scope of archived material already in existence. Essentially the RA’s virtual tour offers the viewer nothing about Picasso that wasn’t already accessible on the internet.

This is frustrating considering the ways in which the exhibition seemed relevant to the current social climate. Paper is a medium accessible at home during quarantine, and Picasso’s resourcefulness during the climate of WWII, using napkins to create mask-like images for instance,  mirrors contemporary artists currently pioneering new ways of creating art during the pandemic, and could potentially serve to illustrate ways of creating art without immediate accessibility to art facilities or shops. The mixed-media sculpture ‘Costume for ‘The American Manager’, a 1917 costume design for a Russian ballet production, consisted of two-dimensional cardboard planes painted and sculpted into the form of a skyscraper façade, with protruding brown cylinders which amusingly resemble toilet roll tubes. While the virtual tour is a feat of accessibility for the institution, ultimately the RA’s digital content remains uninspired and almost lazy when considering more engaging, alternative and creative possibilities.