When questioned about the relationship between art and sexuality, Pablo Picasso once replied, "It's the same thing." Gèrard Règnier, director of the Picasso Museum in Paris and curator of the "Picasso èrotique" exhibition, has taken the artist at his word. This blockbuster show, at Paris' Galerie Nationale Jeu de Paume until May 20 before moving on to Montreal and Barcelona, presents Pablo the Latin lover in a marathon celebration of the pleasure principle.
"Picasso Èrotique" is a ragbag of more than 300 works, in which paintings, sculptures and engravings share the limelight with drawings and doodles culled from the artist's sketchbooks. But each piece shares a common theme: sex, sex and more sex-oral, genital, bestial, consenting and forced.
The exhibition presents three distinct phases of Picasso's explicitly erotic work, although the accompanying drawings show that the subject remained a constant theme throughout his career.
A group of paintings and sketches from 1899 to 1905 provide an anecdotal account of Picasso's experiences in the brothels of Barcelona and Paris at the turn of the century. By the 1930s, this early naturalism was sublimated into erotic symbolism. The paintings and sculptures from this period represent the richest vein tapped by the show: rounded anthropomorphic forms and phallic protuberances intertwine alongside the iconic couplings of girls, gods and Minotaurs, while female toreadors are impaled on the horns of bulls. Finally, the complex engravings and sloppy paintings of the last decade of Picasso's life mark a return to a more anatomically detailed style.
Luckily, the monotony of the exhibition's subject matter focuses attention on the extraordinary versatility of the artist himself. Picasso was a compulsive creator, producing over 20,000 works in a 75-year career. The Cubist style that he helped invent is virtually absent from the Jeu de Paume show. Instead, we see him deploying an astonishing variety of artistic approaches to sex and the human form. The Erotic Scene, 1903, is a riot of expressionistic brushwork, while the female nudes of 1906 have a two-dimensional classicism reminiscent of Roman murals. Only seven days separate the decoratively baroque swirls of The Minotaur, 1933, from the surreal anthropomorphism of Figure by the Sea.
Yet beneath this multitude of styles, the content remains the same. Sexuality, as portrayed by Picasso, is aggressively male and heterosexual. Women are dwarfed by huge phalluses, their faces sculpted from male genitalia. Perspective is subverted to present female bodies as rolling landscapes of breasts and orifices. The catalog daintily refers to all of this as "typically Spanish." For Picasso and his contemporaries, sex presented an escape from the stultifying morality of the Catholic Church and the bourgeois hypocrisy that went with it. The result looks curiously dated at a time when pornographic images can be downloaded into homes at the click of a mouse. Sex has become a universal commodity, blunting the transgressive edge these works must once have had.
Picasso Museum director Règnier says the show breaks new ground by isolating the overtly erotic component of Picasso's work-and that he's striking a blow for freedom in the face of rising American puritanism in the process. Règnier stretches the definition of erotic to include female nudes, leaving the viewer wondering who is supposed to be seeing sexual potential in these human forms. The works are certainly provocative: while some visitors squint impassively, others nudge one another and giggle.
The real problem, though, with "Picasso Èrotique" is that sex is all there is. The exhibition falls victim to the same law of diminishing returns as a dirty movie: it starts out titillating, only to descend into boredom by dint of endless repetition. Picasso-whose overall production was anything but repetitive-deserves better.