Picasso " primitives " at Quai Branly.
Two masks presented side by side captivate the eye of the visitor despite their disconcerting simplicity. Two round holes were enough to signify the eyes on the fragile material. The face is reduced to a geometric shape, oblong for the first executed in wood and patinated with soot, a polygon for the second made of cut and painted cardboard. Their formal similarities are obvious, but what is more striking is the funny presence that they both impose, creating a bond between them and with us that seems to be obvious. As if they were designed to meet one day. This is not the case. The happy encounter between this Picasso cardboard mask and that of an artist from Indonesia is the fruit of the new audacity of the Quai Branly museum. The Parisian institution in turn tackles the Picassian myth, going back to the roots of his genius to show that he owes a lot to his alter ego from Africa, Oceania, America and even Asia.
It is this "primitive Picasso" that the Quai Branly speaks to us about today.
"Primitive", the term is here fully assumed, used not to evoke a stage of non-development, specifies Yves Le Fur, the curator of this ambitious demonstration, but to say "access to the deepest, most founding layers of the human": the quintessence of art.
This passion for the primitive is not limited to the famous episode of the creation of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and the birth of cubism. Throughout his career, they are there, fetishes, masks, Baoulé statuettes, Dogon, Sénoufo, or Sepik sculptures, placed on the floor of his workshop in the middle of his own creations, hanging on the walls of his apartment, in his library, etc. Picasso collects them during his whole life, never separates from them, like faithful, discreet traveling companions whose absence would be unthinkable. Witness the numerous photographs kept in the archives of the Picasso museum, in which Yves Le Fur immersed himself to reconstruct the thread of this singular love story between Picasso and the so-called "Negro" arts, a term which then designates all of the non-Western "exotic" and "wild" arts.
From his first stay in Paris in 1900, Picasso notices the artists' enthusiasm for works from Africa and Oceania, what art historians have called primitivism and of which Gauguin was the eminent representative. Perhaps he has already seen the pieces of the pavilions of Congo, Ivory Coast or Guinea during the Universal Exhibition, going to bring his own paintings to the Spanish pavilion, when Derain expressed his fascination to him for the Fang masks (Gabon) discovered at the British Museum. The artist friend advises him to take a trip to the Trocadéro, in the shambles of the Museum of Ethnography where impressive Kanak masks pile up, their hairstyles made of real hair, menacing statues of disproportionate proportions effigy of African kings,
"I understood why I was a painter. All alone in this awful museum, with masks, red-skinned dolls, dusty mannequins. "
During this famous visit, in June 1907, Picasso confessed to having been shocked by these works which "were not sculptures like the others", but "magic things", not hesitating to qualify their creators as "Intercessors" with the spirits, the unconscious, the emotion. "I understood why I was a painter. All alone in this awful museum, with masks, red-skinned dolls, dusty mannequins. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon must have arrived that day, but not at all because of the shapes: because it was my first canvas of exorcism, yes! That same year, he bought a large Tiki from the Marquesas Islands, next to which Apollinaire posed in 1910 in his workshop on Boulevard de Clichy and which can be found in a photo taken at Picasso's forty-five years later.
Over the course of his long life, the artist never stops acquiring works of primary art. He became a collector, without worrying, underlines Yves Le Fur, of their provenance, their ritual or symbolic function - hence his thunderous exit to the journalist who wanted to question him on the subject: "Negro art? Not know it! Besides, his collection has few exceptional pieces. Picasso is fascinated above all by what his merchant Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler called (in an article published in Présence africaine, in 1948) "the power of plastic signs and emblems", specifying how much "the black artist always shows us what he knows and not what he sees". And to sum up: "The admirable freedom of the art of our time which opens up incredible possibilities to it, we owe it to the example of Negro art. »
Already under the thumb of Cézanne, whom he admires for having turned his back on illusionism and perspective, seeking less resemblance than the truth of the world, Picasso will put into practice the great finds of African, Oceanian or American artists . The elementary bodies of his naked figures are anchored in the ground with all their weight. Sexuality turns out to be autonomous and powerful in aggressive, painted, or sculpted forms. The disfigured faces directly translate the interiority of a person. At the same time, the bodies are dismembered to show themselves from all angles.
Picasso multiplies experiences, using all kinds of materials, plaster, terracotta, cardboard, a bicycle handlebar, which he does not hesitate to associate with sculpture and painting, changing completely the hierarchy between the arts, going from one way to another sometimes in the same day. The artist does not hesitate to mix the human with the animal, the body in the face, in reversible images with several degrees of reading, like the straw hat with blue leaves, a head and a bust which merge, or from Great Still Life with a curved pedestal table which metamorphoses to draw the attributes of the female sex.