Challenging the past, trusting the future

Challenging the Past is the National Gallery’s first exhibition dedicated to Picasso. The show promises a new understanding of the greatest artist of the twentieth century and a new beginning for major art exhibitions. The Leisure Review paid attention at the back. 

Pablo Picasso: challenging the passed

At the very end of 2008 National Gallery director Nicholas Penny explained that blockbuster exhibitions were dead, buried under the combined weight of the expense of borrowing, insuring and transporting masterpieces from other collections and the uncertainty of finding sponsors’ funding in testing financial times. In the few months since he made the comment the financial outlook has become rather more certain so if Mr Penny is correct this may prove to be an increasingly rare chance to revel in the proximity of collected greatness for some time. And in the world of modern art none comes with a heavier mantle of greatness than Pablo Picasso.

The exhibition Challenging the Past is a close relative of a show held in Paris, titled Picasso et les mâitres, which ended at the beginning of February. Organised jointly by the National Gallery and the Réunion des Musées Nationaux with special support from the Musée National Picasso, the two shows explore Picasso’s inspiration by and reaction to the old masters of the European tradition. However, in introducing the National Gallery version of the show Penny was keen to stress the difference between London and Paris.

“There is a relationship between this exhibition and that in Paris,” he said, “but this show is very different.” He noted that there is a large number of paintings here that were not in Paris and that the National Gallery show has not included the old masters themselves. “Here we are more interested in the themes and the topics of Picasso,” he explained. Penny also took the opportunity to acknowledge the role of Credit Suisse, the sponsor of the Challenging the Past Show. “It is a new type of relationship for the National Gallery,” he said. “They are becoming our colleagues." Russell Chambers, Credit Suisse chief executive in the UK, concurred. “We are delighted with the overall relationship with the National Gallery,” he said. “We have in equal measure a great affection and great respect for our colleagues at the National Gallery.”

By way of introduction to the exhibition itself Chambers pointed out that Picasso was an agent of change and that we are best able to understand this in the context of the long tradition of the old masters. With this cue Anne Robbins and Christopher Riopelle, who have curated this exhibition, led the preview audience around the six rooms, explaining the thinking behind the exhibition, the significance of the paintings on display and providing, for those of us less than expert in the life and works of Picasso, a very welcome crash course in modernism, cubism and the artistic and social contexts in which Picasso worked.

The rooms are arranged thematically with examples of Picasso’s development as an artist and explorations of his pursuit of various muses, passions and ideas. Throughout the exhibition there are examples of some of Picasso’s most celebrated works and some of the less well known. Together they provide a spectrum of his work. In room one, for example, the paintings trace the way Picasso presented himself through self portrait: the sixteen-year-old artist offered in the style of the old masters, laying claim to the heritage of European art; the appearance and development of the minotaur as an alter-ego; the 1906 self portrait from the period in which he began to break away from the representative tradition. In room two, titled Models and Muses: Nudes, examples of Picasso’s work early, middle and late in his career, showing how he returned to styles and began exploring the cubist approach to show the human body in different planes, multiple profiles and different volumes. But with the nude Large Bather he returns to neo-classical figurative painting during his cubist period. Inspired by Renoir’s Seated Bather, this feels somewhat conventional in comparison with the cubist works but the outsize limbs and hands suggest both power and grace, conveying beauty but also something beyond. One can detect an artist at the peak of his unusual and unnerving powers.

Further on in room four, Models and Muses: the Pensive Sitter, we find three portraits of Olga, the Russian ballerina who was one of Picasso’s many muses and several wives. The delicate naturalism of Portrait of Olga comes as something of a shock but in Seated Woman the same Olga is now outsized and sculptural, stone-like in her density. Elsewhere in this and other rooms there is Large Nude celebrating and deriding Goya, the vulnerability and tenderness of Girl in a Chemise, and in Gustave Conquiot the styling and setting of Lautrec combined with the brushwork of Van Gogh. In room six there are the more direct comparisons of Picasso’s variations on celebrated works by Delacroix, Manet, Poussin and Velázquez.

At the end of the curators’ tour of the exhibition the assembled crowd of press and guests that had been packing the rooms broke up to head back to work or linger around the newly opened spaces of the galleries. For those of us without a great depth of artistic knowledge, the insight provided by Mme Robbins and Mr Riopelle had been a delightful education. At once authoritative and charming with their seductive French and American tones respectively, they carried their expertise lightly and presented it generously, creating (for this correspondent at least) fresh understanding and new appreciation for genres and artists previously under-acknowledged.

Having been Challenging the Past with Picasso, we find a few pointers to the future in the public galleries upstairs. Getting into the Picasso exhibition will cost you £12 and a tour of the exhibition similar to that enjoyed by The Leisure Review could be had for you and up to seventy of your friends and colleagues for £300. While such a tour would be good value at twice the price, the National Gallery is rightly famed for its wide range of free lectures, tours and discussions that takes place around the galleries daily. As we moved towards the Picasso prints (part of the Challenging the Past exhibition but accessible free of charge in the public galleries), we could not help but notice the large crowd of people gathered around a member of the gallery staff in front of one of the countless masterpieces in the National Gallery’s own collection. Dwarfed by the huge canvas, she was speaking with ease about the picture and her audience of some forty or fifty people were entranced. If Mr Penny’s assessment on the future of blockbuster exhibitions proves correct, there is still plenty of scope for engaging the public in the arts and plenty of evidence that we are all keen to be engaged.


Picasso: Challenging the Past is at the National Gallery, London until 7 June. Entry is £12 but there are a range of concessions and you can get in for £6 on Tuesday afternoons. The excellent and exhaustive National Gallery website is at

The Leisure Review, March 2009

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“We are delighted with the overall relationship with the National Gallery,” he said. “We have in equal measure a great affection and great respect for our colleagues at the National Gallery.”

Picasso's Large Bather



Anne Robbins: notes to hand, Large Bather to rear



Christopher Riopelle: insight

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