Parsing Picasso’s 1932 Retrospective
By Emily Talbot, Chief Curator
August 10, 2020
Of the seven oil paintings by Pablo Picasso in the Norton Simon’s collections, ranging in date from 1913 to 1955, three were included in the artist’s first retrospective, held at the Galeries Georges Petit in Paris between June 16 and July 30, 1932: The Ram’s Head (1925), Woman with Mandolin (1925) and Head of a Woman (c. 1927). This exhibition has attracted considerable attention from art historians, both because it was the first comprehensive assembly of the artist’s work to date, and because Picasso curated the show himself. Densely populating the walls with 225 paintings and works on paper, hung in double or triple rows, he eschewed the customary chronological hang of a retrospective and installed his works according to his own personal associations. Critics expressed confusion about the eclectic display, but for Picasso this seems to have been the point: “Someone asked me how I was going to hang my exhibition,” he explained in an interview the day before the opening. “‘Badly,’ I replied, because an exhibition is like a picture: whether it is well or badly ‘arranged,’ it comes to the same thing. What counts is the sense of continuity in [the artist’s] ideas.”
Installation photographs of the exhibition, which were probably taken and annotated by the art historian Margaret Scolari Barr, offer tantalizing clues about the continuities that Picasso may have envisioned. In an image of an ornate gallery with wallpaper and a marble fireplace, the Simon’s Head of a Woman can be seen propped on the mantle. This boomerang-shaped face with a stitch-like mouth and shock of straight hair is almost unrecognizable, but by positioning it near more naturalistic pictures of his young lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, Picasso invites us to consider the range of approaches he employed for a single subject. Furthermore, by installing the Head adjacent to a cubist collage, Man with a Hat and a Violin (1912), hung above the fireplace, he highlights visual consistencies between objects made years apart. The Head, painted over a rectangle of exposed brown canvas framed unevenly with white paint, reiterates in reduced form the shapes and color scheme of the paper collage, constructed out of cut and pasted newsprint.
The framing of these photographs, which divides the exhibition into single walls and partial views, encourages comparisons between pictures installed side by side, as well as those positioned further apart. In an image of one of the larger halls of the exhibition, the Simon’s The Ram’s Head appears in the upper row, second from the right, flanked on all sides by energetic cubist compositions. In this company, the flattened, decapitated ram’s head, nestled on a table amid an assortment of colorful sea creatures, draws attention to Picasso's varied approaches to geometric abstraction. At the same time, as one of a large number of still-life subjects on display, The Ram’s Head also reveals the artist’s long-standing fascination with a deeply historical genre. Toward the middle of this wall, for example, we see two recently painted still lifes that also feature detached heads: here, sculptural busts based on Marie-Thérèse Walter, which are perched on pedestals and surrounded by fruit and flowers. Together with The Ram’s Head, these paintings suggest that Picasso’s attraction to still life may have been the way in which it enabled him to transform and objectify—in the most literal way—his living subjects.
After the close of the Georges Petit exhibition at the end of July, many of the paintings displayed there (including the Simon’s three Picassos) were transferred to the Kunsthaus Zürich, where the exhibition opened in new form in September. The Paris retrospective would be the first and only time that Picasso installed his own work, and, based on the arrangements in which the Simon’s paintings appear, it offers a rich model for the open-ended ways in which Picasso wished his art to be understood.
Emily Talbot is Chief Curator of the Norton Simon Museum.