"Three Musicians," a 1921 painting by Pablo Picasso, is the centerpiece of "Picasso: The Artist and His Models." The painting, on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, pictures three fragmented figures as stand-ins for Picasso and his friends. Picasso is depicted as Harlequin, a stock figure from Italian commedia dell'arte to which he returned throughout his career. To his right is Pierrot, another stock figure from commedia dell'arte, playing the recorder and standing in for Picasso's close friend, the critic and poet Guillame Apollinaire, who died in 1918. And at right, depicted as a friar, is the French writer Max Jacob.
On the opposite side of the wall where "Three Musicians" hangs is this much more somber painting from 1921, "La Lecture de la lettre" or "Reading the Letter." While the straightforward figurative style couldn't be more different from "Three Musicians," its subject is the same: Picasso's friendship with Apollinaire, who is shown here as the young man reading a letter with the artist's arm draped around his shoulder reading what we could be bad news from the front. Together with "Three Musicians," this painting demonstrates Picasso's facility with varying styles, his ranging curiosity and his ability to create remarkably different variations on a favorite theme.
"La Toilette," one of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's most controversial acquisitions, sets the stage for a trio of works in this show that demonstrate the evolution of the human figure in Picasso's work in just four years -- from the time he painted this classically influenced piece in 1906 to the cementing of his analytical cubist style in 1910's "Nude Figure." Here, according to co-curator Holly E. Hughes, Picasso sets the horizon line that is carried through "Bather" from 1908-09 and a color palette that becomes increasingly monochromatic.
"Bather," created during the winter of 1908-09 and on loan from the Museum of Modern Art, is an early experiment in presenting three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface. To understand this painting, Albright-Knox Director Janne Sirén said, "you really need to think of Picasso as a sculptor." It is his attempt to reduce the experience of walking around a model to a flat canvas, which results in strange refractions and angles derived from different vantage points. You can almost feel the pressure of three dimensions exerting itself on the canvas.
By 1910, when Picasso painted this "Nude Figure" in the Albright-Knox collection, he and Georges Braque had developed the style known as analytical cubism. The comparatively vibrant color palette of "La Toilette" has become darker and much more specifically tuned. The body of "The Bather" has become even more fragmented. Sirén called it an "almost mathematical" reduction of form, line and color into a coded view of the real world.
Once again, in this 1918 painting "Harlequin with Violin," Picasso depicts himself as the classic commedia dell'arte figure, this time with a violin and a sheet music inscribed with the words "If You Wish..." Scholars speculate that the painting has to do with Picasso's marriage to the Ukrainian ballet dancer Olga Khokhlova.
Throughout his career, Picasso projected his own emotional states into his portraits. A good test case for this lifelong practice are three portraits of Dora Maar, first his muse and later the subject of his abuse. This 1938 painting, "Femme assise (Dora)," or "Seated Woman (Dora)," contains a manic network of signs and symbols that add up to Maar's brooding face. It reads both as a commentary on the model's complexity and as a test for Picasso's ever-developing style.
Another portrait of Dora Maar from the next year (1939) dispenses with the basket-work flourishes of "Seated Woman" and instead seems designed, in an uncharacteristically sweet way, to capture the brooding nature of Picasso's then-muse. As Hughes notes in her wall label, the model's pensive look could have to do with the onset of World War II.
Any tenderness or sense of homage that may have been embedded in Picasso's earlier depictions of Dora Maar had vanished by 1944, when he painted this garish, green-hued portrait of his onetime muse. Hughes noted that the green color -- implying envy -- and piggish nose likely conveyed Picasso's own feelings toward Maar after their relationship had ended.
For almost his entire career, Hughes said, Picasso was preoccupied with political issues. He began his ascendance amid the carnage of World War I and created his masterpiece ("Guernica") in reaction to the fascist bombing of a Spanish village in 1937. His 1963 painting "Rape of the Sabine Women," from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, combined his reverence for classical themes with his concern for contemporary issues. This piece, which shows a child reaching up in anguish past her trampled mother as two men on horseback clash with one another, is a reaction to the Cuban missile crisis of the previous year. Hughes suggested that it could just as easily apply to the war in Syria today.
As Picasso's career progressed into its twilight stages, he became increasingly concerned with his place in art history. He saw many of his paintings as conversations with the old masters, including this 1954 painting based on Eugene Delacroix's "The Women of Algiers." It is on loan from the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Connecticut.
This still life from 1944, when Picasso was contemplating the terror and destruction of World War II along with the rest of the world, features the image of a human skull along with a pitcher and a pile of leeks. The skull, which made frequent appearances in Picasso's paintings, is a stand-in for his concerns about the price of war as well as his own mortality.