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Why Picasso continues to inspire the Levant

Picasso-Mediterranee, a two-year project highlighting the rich ties of the 20th century’s prodigal painter to the Mediterranean, concludes with exhibitions in the Levantine port cities of Izmir and Beirut.

The face of Dora Maar, the Surrealist photographer and tormented muse of Pablo Picasso, consists of an iron and wood bookcase. A pink plastic sieve nested in a pink plastic bowl lends depth and color to her cheek, and her trademark red fingernails are a toy fish and four silk rose petals. 

What looks like a chaotic collection of items thrown together by someone who hoards plastic is actually a three-dimensional rendering of “The Portrait of Dora Maar,” the 1937 oil painting by Pablo Picasso, the brilliant artist and Dora Maar's cruel lover. Bernard Pras, a French master of anamorphic art, is known for turning pills, plastic utensils, paper, road signs and more into unique representations of famous images, such as Vincent Van Gogh’s “Auto-portrait” and “Uncle Sam Needs You.”

Pras’ “Dora,” currently on display at the French Cultural Institute in Izmir, consists of objects he found in the flea markets of the coastal Aegean city. “It is a venue-specific work that pays homage to the great Mediterranean artist,” Caroline David, director of the institute, told Al-Monitor. “Some of the objects come from the depots of the institute. The others are from Kemeralti [Izmir’s historical bazaar]."

Pras’ tribute to Picasso coincides with a Picasso exhibition at the Arkas Art Center, across the street from the institute. “Picasso and the Art of Spectacle,” curated by Jean-Luc Maeso, brings together 83 works by the Spanish artist, some of them displayed outside France for the first time.

“I wanted to focus on the little-known side of Picasso — the playful aspect of his versatile personality … [and] reveal the man who was drawn to the cabarets and music halls, to the Russian ballet, Spanish bullfights and Italian commedia dell’arte,” Maeso told Al-Monitor.

The works in the Arkas exhibition include “Acrobat,” a biomorphic oil on canvas painting, “Bullfight: The Death of the Toreador,” an oil on wood painting in which the figures of the bull, the bullfighter and a horse are intertwined, and “Portrait of a Woman with Blue Hat,” an oil on canvas painting that dominates one of the high-ceilinged rooms of the 19th-century French-style building that houses the exhibit.

David Douglas Duncan's photo, taken in 1957, shows Pablo Picasso playing the torero (photo Succession Picasso 2019)

A series of photographs reveal Picasso’s self-identification with the bullfighter and Harlequin, the nimble and resourceful clown of commedia dell’arte. In one black-and-white photo, Picasso - always ready to put on a show - poses for Dora Maar in a white bathing suit with a bovine skull on his head. In another, he wears a clown’s nose next to a grim-faced Jean Cocteau, the writer, filmmaker and friend of Picasso. A photomontage by Jean Harold, borrowing from an original photograph by David Douglas Duncan, shows the artist bare-chested and barefoot in a dance pose, with his head replaced by that of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Duncan also photographed Picasso in shorts and Moroccan slippers playing the torero with a white tablecloth to amuse his wife, Jacqueline Rocque.

For visitors new to Picasso or only familiar with his major works, the surprise of the exhibition is probably the artist’s little-known sketches for theater. These include costumes and the curtain for “Parade,” the musical scored by Eric Satie, and costumes and scenery for the ballet “Le Tricorne” (The Three-Cornered Hat), based on the novel by Pedro de Alarcon.

“The artist’s fascination with theater led to many collaborations with the major intellectuals and artists of his time,” Mujde Unustasi, director of the Arkas Art Center, said at a press conference for the exhibition's opening in September. “His works were influenced by different figures that reflected the environment, the world in which he lived, as well as his internal universe.”

“The painter and the child” by Pablo Picasso is pictured (photo Succession Picasso 2019)

To the south in another Levantine city, Beirut, an exhibition at the Sursock Museum spotlights the parents, siblings, wives, lovers and children who influenced Picasso. The first Picasso exhibition mounted in Lebanon, “Picasso and the Family” brings together 20 works, including two iconic paintings: “The Painter and Child,” an oil on canvas in which Picasso deliberately creates ambiguity about whether he is the father or the son, and the emotionally charged “Francoise, Claude, Paloma: Reading and Games II,” which depicts his two children with his companion Francoise Gilot, arguably the only one of his lovers who thrived artistically and personally after leaving him.

The exhibitions at the Sursock and Arkas are the closing events of Picasso-Mediterranee, a two-year project involving a range of museums, galleries and art centers to explore Picasso's relation to the Mediterranean, which served as his home and as inspiration. Picasso, undeniably Mediterranean, drew inspiration from both the northern and southern shores of the sea. The culture and myths of ancient Greece as well as the Middle Eastern were of great interest to him. In version L of “Women of Algiers,” a series of 15 paintings and hundreds of sketches paying tribute to the French orientalist painter Eugene Delacroix, he drew a single woman with a hookah, an image inspired by the ancient Middle Eastern goddess Astarte.

Picasso-Mediterranee presented more than forty-five exhibitions in Mediterranean cities during 2017-2019. At the press conference for the Izmir opening, Laurent Le Bon, president of the Paris-based Picasso National Museum, remarked, “Monographic, thematic or exploring the relationship between Picasso and other artists, all provide an innovative approach to Picasso’s works as seen through the prism of the Mediterranean world.” The Paris museum oversaw the project.

Most of the exhibitions highlighted themes relevant to the branding of the host city. For example, the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, a budding venue for gastro-tourism, mounted “Picasso’s Kitchen.” Nimes, the French town known for its ancient arena and bullfights, hosted “Picasso-Dominguin: A Friendship,” which explored the relationship between the artist and the Spanish bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguin.

In the south of mare nostrum, the Mohammed VI Museum in Rabat brought the works of Picasso to Morocco for the first time with the exhibition “Face à Picasso” (Face toward Picasso). The young museum, which opened in 2014, not only exhibited a broad spectrum of Picasso’s different periods, but also works by Moroccan and European artists who were inspired by him.

There is good reason for Picasso to continue to inspire the Mediterranean world nearly half a century after his death and at a time when populations around the region are in flux. “Picasso himself was a migrant,” Le Bon recalled in Izmir. “Though he spent most of his life in France, when he applied for nationality [in 1940], he was denied.” The themes Picasso dealt with — among them poverty, inequality, social protests, and, as depicted in his most famous work, “Guernica,” civil war and destruction — still dominate the lands surrounding the sea.

“Dora,” by Bernard Pras runs until Dec. 31 at the French Cultural Institute, Izmir.

“Picasso and the Art of Spectacle,” runs until Jan. 5, 2020 at the Arkas Art Center, Izmir.

“Picasso and the Family,” runs until Jan. 6, 2020 at the Sursock Museum, Beirut - the museum is currently closed due to the Lebanese protests.

All are free of charge.

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