Sketchbook exhibition reveals how Picasso worked

IT seems extraordinary that the sketchbooks of Pablo Picasso are only just becoming known to the world. The reason seems to be that they have remained in the possession of the artist's family rather than a museum. But now selections from some of them are being made public. The sketchbooks vividly underscore the autobiographical nature of Picasso's bursting, lifelong creative production. He turned his private fears, loves, obsessions, and visual fascinations into an art of almost unceasingly vigorous invention. The sketchbooks show the mixed order and chaos of this inventiveness: a methodical, diary-like approach on the one hand, a trial-and-error exploration of new ideas on the other. The facility with which his pen, pencil, chalk, or crayon plays with an image rarely lapses. But when it does, his pursuit of the unresolved expresses a kind of urgent awkwardness.

Three hundred pages from 45 of the sketchbooks are shown. They span his career, from 1894 to 1967. The Royal Academy of Arts here in London is their second venue on a long tour; the exhibition will travel next to museums in the United States and then to other European museums. The selection was seen first at the Pace Gallery, New York. Credit is due to the sponsor of this ambitious project, American Express.

The London exhibition -- which coincides with the release of a new book about the sketchbooks published by Thames and Hudson -- is both immensely intriguing and rather frustrating.

To trace Picasso's astonishing career through a procession of drawings, jottings, scribbles, and observations that are largely unfamiliar, is to experience a train of new insights, certainly. Sketchbook No. 42 (1907) alone, with its drawings relating to the painting ``Les Demoiselles d'Avignon'' (considered seminal in Picasso's oeuvre), offers not only evidence that helps to explain the genesis and subject of this work; it also gives a feel for the way in which the artist worked and thought. His paintings look direct and spontaneous. But it seems that considerable mulling over often took place before this final ``spontaneity'' occurred. And this mulling process took the form of a series of quick and impulsive drawings and ideas. It was not the sort of preparation that aims at some final perfectionism. Rather, it was a form of preparation that allowed Picasso to retain the idea's raw state while eliminating weaker alternatives.

Not that the kind of compelling savagery inherent in ``Demoiselles'' was always Picasso's mode. The sketchbooks circa 1922 contain some of his tenderest moments, a classical-lyrical mood largely on the theme of mother and child. Two pencil drawings related to his small painting ``Famille au bord de la Mer'' (from Sketchbook No. 75) are shown from this time. Are they drawings for the painting -- or were they done after it was finished? One consists of outlines alone. The second shows the figures modeled, but some of the outlines have been insensitively overdrawn. One wonders why. To transfer the drawing?

These are the kinds of questions that the visitor would surely like to hear answered, or at least discussed. The organizers seem intent on offering glimpses of a priceless legacy, but glimpses are not enough. In a number of cases, only one page of a sketchbook is shown, with a few photographs of other pages nearby. The rest of the book remains hidden. Naturally there is every reason not to crudely dismember sketchbooks; but there must be safe ways in which a bookbinder could separate the leaves for exhibition purposes and then rebind them afterwards. What, after all, is the most important -- the preciousness of the object or the drawings themselves? It's a pity to commit such sketchbooks to a long exhibition tour, and then make it impossible for people to see them.

There's another puzzle about the show and the new book about the sketchbooks: They both state categorically that the 175 sketchbooks contain images from ``every phase'' of Picasso's career. What they cover is indeed impressive. But three periods of a number of years each are in fact missed: the last few years of his life, when he was still working; six years from 1933 to 1939; and -- most sadly -- the exact period from 1908 to 1912 when he worked with Georges Braque inventing cubism. This exceptional period is arguably the most creative of Picasso's career. Yet we are not told anything about the lacuna in the sketchbook-evidence. Were the sketchbooks of those four crucial years broken up and sold by Picasso? Are their pages still known, separately? Are they in any of the other catalogs of his work? Or did Picasso forgo his practice of using sketchbooks during those years?

It is tempting to feel that if the 175 sketchbooks had been donated to a museum -- the Mus'ee Picasso in Paris would be logical -- they would now be more accessible than they are. All the same, this tour is very worthwhile. Through Nov. 19.

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