Still learning from The School of Paris

Examples of the magnificent work of Pablo Picasso and other painters who were active in Paris in the early 20th century are showcased in an exhibition at the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art in Sakyo Ward, Kyoto.

Picasso and The School of Paris: Paintings from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York includes 72 works by 34 artists. The exhibits were selected from masterworks owned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and more than half of the paintings selected are on display to the public in Japan for the first time. These works include Harlequin (1901) by Picasso, The Young Sailor (1906) by Henri Matisse and Reclining Nude (1917) by Amedeo Modigliani.

The exhibition is divided chronologically into seven sections: The Century’s Turn, The Fauve Painters, The Cubist Painters, The Tradition and Change, The 1920s, The 1930s and Epilogue.

It was organized by William Lieberman, chairman of the museum’s modern art department. He visited Japan to supervise the staging and attend the Sept. 13 opening ceremony.

The exhibition elaborately illustrates the style and development of each painter and their influences on one another. With the aid of the exhibition catalogue, which has text in both English and Japanese, viewers can build a complete picture of the Paris art world of this time.

Of the 72 exhibits, 70 were created between 1895 and 1940, when the thriving art scene in Paris attracted painters and sculptors from all over the world. The French phrase “L’ecole de Paris” (The School of Paris) was initially used to describe these expatriate artists.

Picasso came to Paris in 1900 from Spain, Jules Pascin from Bulgaria in 1905, Juan Gris from Spain and Modigliani from Italy in 1906, Marc Chagall from Russia in 1910, Diego Rivera from Mexico in 1911, Chaim Soutine from Lithuania in 1913, Tamara de Lempicka from Poland in 1918 and Joan Miro from Spain in 1919.

They joined French painters based in the city, such as Matisse, Odilon Redon, Pierre Bonnard, Georges Rouault, Henri Rousseau, Andre Derain, Georges Braque, Fernand Leger, Maurice Utrillo, Marie Laurencin and Balthus.

They competed with each other, but they also consulted one another and socialized at cafes and cabarets in Montmartre and Montparnasse, while all the time pursuing their own distinctive styles.

Cafe owners and generous patrons extended support to many of these expatriates, who in many cases were poor. But financial help also came from art dealers and collectors keen to discover new talent.

Artists from other genres were also influential. Picasso, for example, mingled with poet Guillaume Apollinaire; author, artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau; and writers Andre Gide and Gertrude Stein.

The meaning of The School of Paris broadened later. Today, it means progressive and innovative works of art created in the first half of the 20th century in Paris.

Cubism, the most innovative and monumental art movement of the 20th century, was founded in Paris by Picasso and Braque, who collaborated closely between 1910 and 1912.

In the Cubist Painters section, Braque’s Candlestick and Playing Cards on a Table (1910) and Picasso’s Pipe Rack and Still Life on a Table (1911) are very similar in color, touch and structure. Viewing these two pictures on display side by side, it is difficult to distinguish one artist from the other. The 1920s section, meanwhile, illustrates how the two artists ultimately developed different styles, as can be seen in their respective pictures of similar objects. Juan Gris, a Spaniard like Picasso, was Picasso’s closest disciple and this is obvious when viewing his Violin and Playing Cards on a Table (1913).

Aside from Cubism, other approaches also flourished in the creative climate of Paris. Among the artists not involved with Cubism was Modigliani, whose short bohemian life was studded with romance and tragedy.

“He is perhaps the most typical figural painter of The School of Paris,” Lieberman says of Modigliani. His Reclining Nude, in the Tradition and Change section, is typical of his style, which is based on simplification and deformation.

“Modigliani painted 20 nudes. The best ones are reclining nudes. They continue in the Renaissance tradition (of artists) such as Titian (1488-1576) and are certainly among the most voluptuous of the 20th century.”

Balthus reached maturity as a painter in the 1930s. His Therese Awake (1938) in the 1930s section impressively records one moment in the life of a preadolescent girl in his neighborhood, one of his favorite models.

Girl Reading at a Table (1934) and Girl Asleep at a Table (1936) by Picasso depict Marie-Therese, his mistress at the time. On display side by side, the difference between them is immediately apparent. The romantic, colorful Marie-Therese in the former picture changes drastically in the latter. “Three years later, war is coming and the same girl, nighttime, is painted in colors of mourning, black, white and gray,” Lieberman says.

In the Epilogue section, two pictures of Paris painted after World War II by Jean Helion are on display.

Picasso’s The Blind Man’s Meal (1903), in the Century’s Turn section, is blue and melancholic, heralding the artist’s Blue Period.

His Harlequin painted two years earlier also appears lonely and melancholic.

“This picture is handsome, decorative, very art nouveau, symbolist and tells you absolutely nothing about his future development,” Lieberman says. “If Picasso had died (right) after his Blue Period, the whole world of art would have been very different.”

After a brief return to his hometown of Barcelona, Picasso came back to Paris in May 1901 at the age of 20. In poverty and solitude and yet to be acknowledged by the art world, he energetically drew scenes of urban nightlife in Paris, before embracing the circus and Harlequin as subjects in the autumn of that year.

Wearing heavy white makeup, the Harlequin in this picture sits on a sofa, posing with two fingers on his cheek.

Harlequin is a leading character of classical Italian mask drama, commedia dell’arte. Ferruccio Soleri, a master performer at the Piccolo Theater in Milan, once said that Harlequin is a lonely resident in a utopia.

The character, an allegory of Picasso as performer, became a major theme for Picasso throughout his long career and underwent frequent changes in style.

One of the world’s largest

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, is one of the largest museums in the world, on a par with the Louvre in Paris and the British Museum in London. It was founded in 1870.

Its collection started with 174 items. It now has more than 2 million. Due to its wide range and diversity, covering the prehistoric age to modern times, the museum is dubbed a “visual encyclopedia of art.”

“Look at the catalogue, read the text and look at the pictures. They then explain,” Lieberman says. “This show is a constellation of paintings. When you look at the pictures, they show you the relationship between the artists.”

Modern art is one of the strongest genres of the U.S. museum. This exhibition is the largest ever in Japan on loan from the division.

The exhibition in Kyoto marks the 50th anniversary of The Yomiuri Shimbun, Osaka, which is one of the sponsors. The show will be held in Tokyo from Dec. 7 to March 9.

According to Lieberman, most of the paintings at the exhibition were donated to the museum. Indeed, Balthus’ Therese Awake and Picasso’s Girl Reading at a Table were given to the museum by benefactors in honor of Lieberman himself.

Picasso and The School of Paris: Paintings from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Through Nov. 24, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., closed on Mondays except Sept. 23, Oct. 14 and Nov. 4.
Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art, a 10-minute walk northeast of Higashiyama subway station.
Admission: 1,300 yen for adults, 900 yen for university and high school students, and 500 yen for middle and primary school students
Information: (06) 4860-8600

The exhibition will also be held at The Bunkamura Museum of Art in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo from Dec. 7 to March 9, 2003.
Information: (03) 5777-8600

Ticket giveaway

Ten pairs of tickets will be given away for the Kyoto exhibition. Send a kansei hagaki (official postcard) with your name, address and phone number by Sept. 25 to: Metropolitan Exhibition, The Daily Yomiuri, 5-9, Nozakicho, Kita-ku, Osaka 530-8551