Thursday, August 28, 2008

New Picasso exhibit set to open


When Alfred Moir dug into the archives of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s permanent collection more than 30 years ago, he stumbled across a group of prints that made his heart skip a beat or two.
For the next three decades, he begged, pleaded and harangued with the powers that be for an opportunity to showcase his find.

In a few days, he’ll get his wish when the museum unveils “Picasso on Paper,” a collection of drawings and prints spanning nearly 70 years of Pablo Picasso’s influential career.
“Finally, I’ve been indulged,” said Moir, professor emeritus of art history at UC Santa Barbara and the museum’s consulting curator of European drawings.
The 84-year-old art enthusiast had never put together a Picasso exhibition, despite volunteering at the museum since 1962.
Moir discovered 15 of the renowned artist’s prints buried in archival material in the mid-70s while cataloguing the museum’s entire stockpile of European drawings.
The 25 works that will be revealed on Sept. 6 include a rare impression of Picasso’s first completed print, a handful of original drawings and several posters that the artist fashioned for his own exhibitions.
It’s a display that offers a varied glimpse into a lengthy career, bridging a gap from 1899 to 1967.
“Picasso was very long-lived,” Moir said. “It really covers nearly the entire length of his working life.”
And while Picasso is perhaps best known for his cubist and surrealist work — often depicting scattered or muddled portraits — none of his extremely nonrepresentational pieces will be seen in the exhibition.
Instead, Moir said, the display is a testament to the artist’s skill at drafting and his ability to work in a variety of media, from print to paint to sculpture.
“He was given a classical education,” Moir said. “He could draw representational works of art like almost no one in Western circles.”
Picasso’s fanatic relationship with art began at age 7, when his father gave him formal training in drawing figures. His relentless nature had him continually reworking paintings and drawings, often creating one or more a day.
“I think we might safely say he was almost addicted to his art,” Moir said.
After settling into the Paris art scene in the early 1900s — running in the same circles as art dealer Ambroise Vollard and American writer Gertrude Stein — he quickly earned notoriety.
It was in 1904 that he completed his first print, “The Frugal Repast.” Using a zinc plate that had previously featured a landscape, he created 30 impressions of the now-famous image of a gaunt couple seated at a nearly barren table.
A hint of a tree from the previous image haunts the background of the print, Moir said. Picasso gave those impressions, now immensely rare, to his friends.
When Vollard acquired the plate years later, he had it touched up and resurfaced in steel. In 1913, he published a second edition of 250 prints, including the one featured in the upcoming exhibition.
By the age of 30, Picasso had become very wealthy and well recognized through the efforts of Vollard and others.
Beyond his work, the artist also became infamous for his prolific and active sex life, Moir said. He regularly attended brothels in his youth and strove for years to get a divorce from his first wife, then a very taboo move.
“They think of him as a kind of thug,” Moir said.
His relationships overflowed into his working life, evident in his 1936 painting “Portrait of Dora Maar,” styled after his lover Theodora Markovich.
Her face, warped slightly by a combined profile and front view, is topped with a clump of dark hair that she normally wore down in long, flowing strands.
“He made her braid it so it would bring out her beautiful oval face,” Moir said.
A print of the original painting, signed by Picasso on both the impression and the matting, is part of the upcoming exhibition.
The couple remained together through World War II and Markovich, a photographer and painter in her own right, documented the creation of Picasso’s most famous work, “Guernica.”
While several of the prints and drawings that will go on display in a week and a half are easily recognizable as famous works, such as “The Frugal Repast,” Moir pointed to a lesser-known piece as his favorite in the collection.
“If I were given my druthers of which one to steal, that is it,” he said, gazing down at the 1947 lithograph known as “Les faunes et la centauresse.”
In the print, one faun plays pipes as another holds up a mirror to a preening centauress, who admires a necklace draped around her neck.
Referring to the work as a tour de force of craftsmanship, Moir said, “I love the personalities it conveys.”
The curator, who started putting together his own collection of art in 1969, never could afford a Picasso of his own on a professor’s salary.
But the 84-year-old said working in a museum gives him a sense of ownership, even if artwork is hidden away in the archives for years before making an appearance.
It will be a brief appearance for “Picasso on Paper,” Moir said, due to the fragility of the works.
“Prints and drawings are very sensitive to light,” he said. “They cannot be displayed for long periods of time under intense light or sunlight.”
The exhibition will go up on the walls of the Von Romberg and Emmons galleries at the museum through Dec. 7. More information on museum hours and exhibitions is available by calling 963-4368 or visiting
Having yearned to put on a Picasso show for decades now, Moir revealed his simple pleasure in finally achieving his goal.
“I’m very pleased to have done it,” he said, “and I think it looks very good.”

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