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Ambroise Vollard by Picasso 

"Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was one of the world's greatest draughtsmen," Susan Grace Galassi, Senior Curator at the Frick Collection in New York, declares at the outset of her introductory essay in the catalogue of a recent exhibition of Picasso drawings, subtitled Reinventing Tradition, at the Frick and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The only other artist she accords "one of the world's greatest draughtsmen" status in her essay is Michelangelo. Galassi avers that the "system of training" Picasso underwent "had remained relatively unchanged since the Renaissance".

Ironically, it is precisely because of that training that Picasso has come to be regarded as a sort of Old Master manqué. Hence a Hegelian narrative: the youthful prodigy mastered "the conventions of classical representation". Thesis. Abandoning the academy at the age of 16, he rebelled against those conventions. Antithesis. But in doing so he would go on to "reinvent" them. Synthesis.

The big problem here is that many art historians assume that the instruction received by Picasso and Ingres, who was born almost exactly a century before him, was essentially the same. After all, both followed the hallowed pedagogical sequence: copying prints (known as copying "from the flat"), then moving on to drawing plaster casts of antique sculpture, then proceeding to drawing the figure from life. But the apparent similarity masks a chasm, and that chasm has a lot to tell us not only about Modernism's advent and Picasso's own artistic trajectory, but also about serious lapses in contemporary scholarship.

Precisely because Galassi's assessment of Picasso's status as a draughtsman comparable to Michelangelo assumes his "mastery of the conventions of classical representation",  her Hegelian thesis is untenable. The fault lay not in Picasso, but in his dumbed-down, late-academic training. A case in point is Picasso's portrait of Ambroise Vollard, which was included in the Frick exhibition.

In his thirties and forties, Picasso produced a number of pencil portraits that took their stylistic cues — specifically, their emphasis on sinuous line — from Ingres. Picasso was notoriously smitten with Ingres's draughtsmanship. Even as a 22-year-old enfant terrible, he had made a pilgrimage to his illustrious predecessor's hometown of Montauban to visit the Musée Ingres. The year was 1904.

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Kingonymous
June 24th, 2014
6:06 AM
In my opinion, this article is spot on about Picasso and in its main argument, but waaay unfair and snarky regarding the Bargue cours. Picasso's crappy Bargues are not Bargue's fault. The cours was not an EZ method, but served as the preliminary stage of what the author refers to as the hallowed sequence of drawing in the flat, then casts, then from life. The point in the Bargue cours is not that it will make you great or an artist, but that it emphasized extreme precision in copying (to the extent that nowadays it is common practice to compare your finished work to a transparency of the Bargue original. The emphasis on "blocking in" (the "diagramatic" lines), relational and geometric landmarks, light, shade and cast shadow does indeed allow someone with no prior training to approach deeper study with more confidence. And for those who never go beyond this stage, it is true that the skills taught reside entirely in the retinal, and lack the conceptual and formal depth of classical training, but it does hone a much clearer grasp of what one is looking at, in light and space, and spares the casual draftsperson the angst of possibly decades of stubborn rookie mistakes and akwardness.

Wagner
September 24th, 2013
5:09 PM
A very well studied and insightful article, thanks, picasso's was far from being a draughtsman and his statement about being better than Raphael is simply arrogant. @Toronto this article is about Picasso's draughtsmanship skills and whether his own claims of being a better one than Raphael stood up to scrutiny. This article clearly responds to that by examining his works, especially the early studies, which has proven that Picasso was very weak in representational anatomy.

Chaszz
May 31st, 2012
1:05 PM
Ingres was no 'Ingres' either in many ways. Although he preached the classical verities, he relentlessly flattened the space in his best pictures like an Italian medieval painter, or like Picasso in 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.' There is the famous Ingres 'Grand Odalisque' with a face that is a flattened combination of profile and three-quarters view (eerily presaging Picasso's portraits) and the anatomically wrong five extra vertebrae. The pose is also impossible for a human being to assume and looks it. When Ingres was most enamored of tradition, as in his 'Apotheosis of Homer' or 'The Vow of Louis XIII,' he was sugary, sentimental and boring. His most powerful paintings are those like his portraits and nudes where the space is flattened into seeming relief rather than sculpture in the round. These are full of energy and are prescient of the spatial flattening in modern painting, where the formal primacy of the flat picture plane came to be widely asserted.

Toronto
May 31st, 2012
11:05 AM
While Picasso is no Ingres, there are a few unfairnesses in the article. A better sample of some of the mid-1910s drawings would show that Picasso was actually aware of -- and drew carefully -- the bone structure and 3-d outline of the figure (since we see binocularly but are trying to draw 2-d, a good artist gives the feeling of roundedness in his or her lines), which is not what you would get from Bargue. It's also not clear that Picasso was all that absorbed in the gradients of light and shadow, which you would think would be part of the "takeaway" of the so-called photographic approach -- no one has ever suggested Picasso was a painter of light and shadow. It is interesting (as the author intimates) that Picasso did have an entry into what we would now call Gestalts -- he can evoke the human face and body from the slightest cues, which is part of his enduring power. This is obviously a mixture of the Spanish romanesque, icons, Africa, Cezanne, etc. It would be interesting to work out in more detail why this was so. In the current exhibition in Toronto there is reference made to a recurring dream Picasso had of his body parts getting huge and then getting small, and the same happening to others.

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