Picasso Swaps Lovers, Seeks Sun, Ditches Skulls: Martin Gayford

"Paloma Debout" by Pablo Picasso. The picture is on display in "Picasso: The Mediterranean Years" at the Gagosian Gallery, 6-24 Britannia Street, London through August 28. Photographer: Eric Baudouin/Gagosian Gallery via Bloomberg

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) had an epic life. He lived to be almost 92 years old, enjoyed almost uninterrupted health and success, and worked virtually every day for more than seven decades.

He remains the dominant artist of modern times -- his only possible rival for that title being Henri Matisse. A remarkable and beautifully selected exhibition at the Gagosian in Britannia Street, London, presents him in the ripely productive autumn of his career.

At its opening point, the artist was already 64. He still had almost three decades to go during which he explored new media, created an abundance of masterpieces and experienced the last two great loves of his life. He had also just come out of one of his darkest periods: the wartime occupation of Paris.

During the war Picasso kept low, holed up in his left-bank studio, producing work that is characterized, as the curator John Richardson puts it, by its ‘cell-like settings and fear-filled grayness”. There is still a touch of monochrome drabness about the earlier works in this show. But Picasso’s life rapidly opened out.

From 1946 he spent much of his time in the sunshine of the South of France, eventually settling there permanently. It was a return to the Mediterranean world of his upbringing and youth, and brought out a vein of pastoral fantasy in the great man. In place of the grim skulls of the early 1940s, piping, garlanded shepherds and their goats appear.

Fired Clay

In 1946 on impulse Picasso took up ceramics, a medium he had not worked in since the early 1900s. In the following years, he produced plates, vases and sculptures in fired clay by the hundred. There is a light, relaxed feel to many of these pieces. Indeed, much of Picasso’s work at this time has a playful quality.

On show are some of the little masks, animals, birds, hats and items such as neck-ties he made from cardboard and paper for his children, guests and friends.

This interest in childish things was connected to the fact that there were young children in Picasso’s world. He started a relationship with Francoise Gilot, a student 40 years his junior, in 1944. In the late 1940s and early 1950s it was the family he had with Gilot -- a son, Claude, born in 1947 and daughter Paloma in 1949 -- that seemed to spark his imagination more than Gilot herself.

Baboon Head

There are portraits of both infants in the show, and their toys got into his work, most memorably in the case of “Baboon and Young” (1951). This sculpture is an example of Picasso the magician, transforming one thing, abracadabra, into another. Its head is made of two of young Claude’s toy cars, cast in bronze and metamorphosed with complete conviction into the animal’s eyes and snout.

With Picasso, his private life was his subject matter. When his mistress changed, everything changed. Gilot’s successor was Jacqueline Roque, whom he eventually married in 1961. Her grave, sad beauty came to dominate his art. Before she was installed as reigning mistress, a number of young women were, so to speak, auditioned for the role.

One of these, a redhead perhaps from Eastern Europe, was the subject of “Femme a la robe verte” (1954). Even Richardson -- who is also Picasso’s biographer and friend -- has failed so far to establish her identity. There is still a good deal to discover about the life and work of this hugely prolific artist. From beyond the grave, he continues to astonish.

“Picasso: The Mediterranean Years 1945-1962” runs through Aug. 28 at the Gagosian, 6-24 Britannia Street, London WC1X 9JD. Information: +44-207-841-9960 or http://www.gagosian.com/exhibitions/2010-06-04_picasso/

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Download: Picasso Biographer Richardson