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Picasso at the National Gallery

On Sunday I went to the National Gallery of Art here in Washington, D.C. In the East Building is one of the current exhibits, Picasso: The Cubist Portraits of Fernande Olivier (through January 18, 2004). I like the idea of this exhibit, to bring together a large number of portraits of the same subject. As it turns out, in Picasso the curators had an apparently rare example of a single artist drawing, painting, and sculpting the same woman intensely in a large number of works. What got the ball rolling was the National Gallery's acquisition this year of a version of the sculpted Head of a Woman (Fernande), modeled in 1909 and cast before 1932. Three versions of this sculpture are the centerpiece of the exhibit, placed in the central of the three rooms devoted to it in the East Building. Surrounding it are an array of paintings and drawings that the curators believe are Fernande Olivier or Picasso's idealization or deconstruction of her. (You can consult a list of works in the exhibit, with no images, online.)

Fernande OlivierPablo Picasso, Portrait of Fernande Olivier, 1906, Worcester Art MuseumPablo Picasso, Bust of a Woman, Spring 1909, from a private collection
The curators have placed a single photograph of Fernande (not the one shown above) in the show, at the entrance next to a photograph of Picasso, and I made more than one trip back out of the exhibit to refresh my mental image of the actual woman's attributes, for comparison with Picasso's renderings. (You can see many more photographs and images of Fernande, thanks to the On-Line Picasso Project.) Picasso met Fernande Olivier in 1905, soon after he had settled in Paris. They were born in the same year and were in their mid-20s at this time. Some time before she met Picasso, Fernande had left her abusive husband and found refuge among the art students of Paris. Over several months in 1909 to 1910, in Paris and over that summer in a rented house in the mountain village of Horta de Ebro, Spain, Picasso worked out his understanding of the female form inspired by Fernande's attributes. Within a couple of years, in 1912, Fernande's relationship with Picasso was finished. Gertrude Stein, writing in the persona of her companion in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, wrote about Alice's position, which was to speak to the wives and girlfriends of Ms. Stein's visitors:

Fernande, who was then living with Picasso and had been with him a long time that is to say they were all twenty-four years old at that time but they had been together a long time, Fernande was the first wife of a genius I sat with and she was not the least amusing. We talked hats. Fernande had two subjects hats and perfumes. This first day we talked hats. She liked hats, she had the true french feeling about a hat, if a hat did not provoke some witticism from a man on the street the hat was not a success. Later on once in Montmartre she and I were walking together. She had on a large yellow hat and I had on a much smaller blue one. As we were walking along a workman stopped and called out, there go the sun and the moon shining together. Ah, said Fernande to me with a radiant smile, you see our hats are a success.
(You can find out more about Fernande in the published translation of her journal and some of her letters, Loving Picasso: The Private Journal of Fernande Olivier, or her book Picasso et ses amis, available in French.) Fernande had appeared in Picasso's work before 1909, in a sketch owned by the Worcester Art Museum (shown above), and in a non-Cubist sculpted head (clay model in the Musée Picasso and bronze cast in the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris). She has also appeared in works by Kees Van Dongen: Fernande Olivier (1905, collection Samir Traboulsi, Paris) and Portrait de Fernande Olivier (1906), for example.

The National Gallery has published a selection of 16 images from the exhibit on its Web site. I suspect that some paintings not in the show may also be representations of Fernande: for example, Woman with Fan (After the Dance) (Summer 1908, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg), or from Gertrude Stein's description of her love for hats, maybe the Woman with Fan (Spring 1909, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow). To get a broader look at Picasso's work at this time, as well as to find other images from the Fernande show, look at the detailed pages on 1909 from the On-Line Picasso Project. This exhibit at the National Gallery is well worth the short visit required to view it; from here it will travel to the Nasher Sculpture Center (Dallas, Texas), from February 15 to May 9, 2004.

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