The most formidable artist of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso, was destined to leave a photographic legacy, even though the camera was never his chosen medium. But great photographers were drawn to the piercing gaze and taurine life force of the Spanish master as to few other painters and sculptors. Picasso commanded attention on so many levels that his taciturn visage and stocky physicality became easy stand-ins for the popular image of the modern artist: profoundly alert, world-weary, sexually liberated and voracious.
Yet, as this exhibit shows, the best photographs of Picasso, his family and associates, avoided the clichés of artistic lionizing by capturing the man at work and at play with none of the hollow reverence or sentimentalizing that lesser photographers were prone to. Cecil Beaton might locate the artist’s dressed-up dignity in carefully shaded artist studio shots, but it was Brassai (Gyula Halasz) who best chronicled Picasso the mortal, and it is Brassai’s photography that dominates this exhibition, just as Picasso dominated his era.
Indeed, Brassai’s images span the artist’s extravagant middle decades, from the 1930s through the ‘60s, following him from beaches to brasseries, in and out of his ateliers, clowning with some of his creations and at leisure with his wives and children. Picasso the force of nature is evident in every image, yet there is a none-too-serious aura of life as lived in Brassai’s shots, especially when the focus shifts to the margins of Picasso’s life: the maids at work in his home, the casual shots of such friends as Jacques Prevert or Jean Cocteau, the quiet cigarette moments. The exhibit is also rich with photos by Man Ray, Brian Brake, Arnold Newman and Andre Villers, rounding out this portrait of the artist as a mythic man.