Ten years might seem like a long time to bring an idea to fruition. In the arts world, however, when seeking bold new interpretations of masterpieces, it just might lead to a once-in-a-lifetime presentation for the public to appreciate.
That’s what Impressionist scholar Richard Kendall and Picasso expert Elizabeth Cowling will bring to the Clark Art Institute this summer with "Picasso Looks at Degas." For the last decade, Kendall, the Clark’s curator-at-large, and Cowling, professor emeritus of the history of art at Edinburgh University in Scotland, have planned, developed and prepared the exhibition, which is set to open to the public on June 13.
"It helped that Richard and I have been lifelong friends," Cowling said recently while taking a break from hanging the show. "This discussion began 10 years ago, and as we researched ideas to support it, we received positive feedback from all corners of the international arts community."
Kendall concurred, noting that the subject of a connection between Degas and Picasso has been on the periphery of arts scholarship for a long time, and that many wanted to see how far the curatorial duo could expand the idea in an internationally recognized exhibit.
"The response from global venues was nothing short of astounding," Kendall said. "Not only were officials confirming our concept, but they were most enthusiastic to lend works and even host the exhibition.
The theme of "Picasso Looks at Degas" involves what both curators called "the affinity existing between the two artists." Throughout his long career, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was captivated by Edgar Degas (1834-1917). Picasso collected the Impressionist’s pictures, frequently reinterpreted his images, and late in life, created scenes portraying Degas himself.
Though they probably never met, Picasso and Degas shared many friends and associates and for a brief overlap lived in close proximity in Paris until the older artist’s death. The exhibition considers Degas from Picasso’s perspective and the ways the Spanish artist’s response varied over time from emulation to confrontation and caricature to reverence.
Both artists were obsessed with women, evident in their portraits of friends and images of singers, laundresses, ballet dancers, bathers and prostitutes. These are Degas’ signature themes; all of them are also reflected in Picasso’s work.
"This dynamic jumps out to ask a series of questions," Kendall said. "What is Picasso doing? Is he paying homage to Degas? Is he copying? Is he teasing? Is he learning from him? Is he having a dialogue with Degas? We don’t have those answers, but we want the public to consider all possibilities and capture that same feeling."
The show reveals the gravity of Picasso’s fascination by striking juxtapositions of art that have never been brought together for a public exhibition. Degas’ "In a Cafe (L’Absinthe)" (1875-76, Musee d’Orsay) is placed alongside Picasso’s "Portrait of Sebastià Junyer i Vidal" (1903, Los Angeles County Museum of Art); Picasso’s "The Blue Room (The Tub)" (1901, Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.) is paired with "The Tub" (c. 1889, Collection Jacques Doucet, Paris), a monotype by Degas that possibly was a prototype; and Picasso’s "Portrait of Benedetta Canals" (1905, Museu Picasso, Barcelona) is hung beside Degas’ "Woman with an Umbrella" (c. 1876, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa).
"The pairings themselves will speak to their audience," Cowling said. "What can’t be emphasized enough, though, is in order to accomplish this setting, the multitude of loans that we secured from so many art institutions is quite nearly unheard of, and is indicative of the tremendous interest in the connection between these two artists."
Versatile duo, varied show
While usually identified as painters, Degas and Picasso were also sculptors, printmakers and draftsmen. The exhibit brings together works in these different media to study Picasso’s reaction to Degas’ mastery. The show opens with Picasso’s early years when he received training similar to Degas, whose art he had yet to discover.
It then moves into early 20th-century Paris, where Picasso first directly encountered Degas’ work and began to respond to the Impressionist’s imagery of modern life. Weaving through the exhibition’s tapestry is the common thread of admiration that both Degas and Picasso had for past masters. Kendall noted that the audience won’t see this on the walls except by inference.
"The underlying logic of the show is that both of these artists were fascinated with the art of the past," he said. "This is the show’s unspoken background. If you know your Ingres and Delacroix and El Greco, you’ll find them here."
Cowling agreed, quickly adding that, "Picasso Looks at Degas" also echoes a populist theme, one not to be missed by even the most casual lover of art.
"People who are interested in any form of creativity will find the energy of this show breathtaking," she said. "Essentially one can see how an artist builds up to something from nothing, whether that is in the creation of one work, or an entire career. The effect is highly energizing. The fact that some works might seem unfinished, given the context in which they are presented, will be a process which many will find fascinating, and relate to very well."
In all, "Picasso Looks at Degas" boasts almost 100 works, 15 from the Clark’s permanent collection. The Clark is the exclusive North American venue for the exhibition through Sept. 12. In the fall it will be presented at the Museu Picasso de Barcelona, in Spain, the show’s largest outside loaner.
"It’s not an accident that an undertaking this ambitious is the Clark’s," Kendall said. "This institution is not about safe and conventional themes, but rather those bold and fresh. The Clark embraced this concept from the very beginning. Look around you; there are buildings going up and activity everywhere. This is the new Clark."
"Picasso Looks at Degas" runs from June 13 to Sept. 12 at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. Info: 413-458-2303 or clarkart.edu.