Blog / Picasso and the Allure of Language


By Bessie Zhang, Nasher Intern

As I returned to Durham this August for the start of a new school year, I was determined to stop by the Nasher to explore the highly-anticipated Pablo Picasso exhibition. Of course, I am familiar with Picasso, who is mentioned at even the most basic levels of art education. The artist’s work is ubiquitous in high-profile metropolitan museums; that the Nasher has secured such an exhibition is both exciting and impressive. Although I had a vague idea of what to expect (namely, examples of Picasso’s distinctive Cubism), the title of the exhibit left me wondering how his work would be linked to the written word.

This curiosity was renewed when I entered the gallery and was immediately greeted by a large board featuring the title of the exhibit: PICASSO and the ALLURE of LANGUAGE. The text on an adjacent, equally large, board, explained the exhibit would explore the ways in which “the artist’s consideration of language contributed to the remarkable innovation in his work.” I quickly found that it was divided into several sections, each featuring a language-related title and several pieces that demonstrate how Picasso’s creative process can be related to this title. Examples of these titles include “Fiction,” “Revisions,” “Conversations,” and “Inscriptions.” This presentation of Picasso’s work is innovative, as it encourages the viewer to consider less obvious aspects of each piece. For example, when I found First Steps (1943) under the “Revisions” section, I focused on details that suggest that the painting was revised several times, and that the artist’s creative process paralleled that of a great writer. Had I encountered the piece in a different gallery, I would have immediately focused on the painting’s clearly Cubist style, while passing over these details.

Not only did the exhibit open my eyes to the role of the written word in Picasso’s most famous pieces, it also gave me a more comprehensive view of Picasso as an artist, writer, and man. I learned that Picasso wrote numerous poems (some of which are displayed in the exhibition, scrawled in the artist’s own script,) and that he had close personal relationships with prolific writers like Gertrude Stein. In fact, one of my favorite parts of the exhibition is a recording of Stein reading I Told Him (1923), a literary portrait of Picasso. Stein’s lilting but clear voice infuses her poem with powerful emotion, and connects Picasso’s work to both the written and spoken word.

I highly recommend a visit to Picasso and the Allure of Language, especially to Duke students (who are allowed one free admission.) The Nasher has invited viewers to consider a prolific artist through a very unique lens; to miss this opportunity would be to do a great disservice to yourself.

IMAGE: Duke Photography

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