Is it possible for an exhibition to fully coax forth the sources of a painter's compelling imagery? Can the mysterious soup of thought, feeling and accident that meld in making a work of art really be laid out? Can a show truly burrow inside an artist's head?
The answer of course is no. Some things are finally impenetrable.
Yet, a marvelously engaging exhibition that opened Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art comes as close as is likely possible to accomplishing that formidable feat. Beginning with a single painting and building outward to encompass both the personal and political history of the artist's life at the moment the picture was made, "Picasso and the Weeping Women: The Years of Marie-Therese Walter and Dora Maar" makes a convincing and unusual contribution to Picasso studies.
The painting in question is the Spanish artist's "Weeping Woman With a Handkerchief," which he executed on June 26, 1937. It was a gift to LACMA just 18 years later, from Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mitchell. (He was the erudite character actor who famously played Scarlett O'Hara's father in "Gone With the Wind," won an Academy Award for "Stagecoach" and collected books and art--Rembrandt, Whistler and Van Gogh among them.) Not the least of the show's achievements is the way it brings the small Picasso to vivid life.
"Weeping Woman With a Handkerchief" has always seemed to be a little gem, but the exhibition frames it in such a way as to reveal it as far superior than otherwise recognized. By the time the show is over, you look at the painting in a new way--which is to say that now you really look at it.
The canvas is not large--21 5/8 by 18 1/8 inches--but it packs a considerable punch. It shows the bust of a Spanish woman (she wears a mantilla) sobbing into a handkerchief. In just six colors, plus black and white, Picasso created an indelible image of mortal grief.
The bean-shaped head, balancing precariously on the point of a triangular neck, is surrounded by heavy blackness. The resulting sense of compression is enhanced by the flattened forms of the mantilla, whose open weave of lace is paradoxically represented by thick, crisscrossing lines.
The woman's skin is bright white. Her nose and cheek are flushed with hot magenta, her acidic green lips shaded with pale, icy blue. The vivid yellow blouse framing her knotted fingers shrieks against the blackness of the background, while her red-orange hair hums against the complementary greens of the mantilla framing her head.
The sobbing eyes and the handkerchief are marvelous inventions. Thick, black lines stream weightily from the eyes, which are themselves shaped like teardrops. The handkerchief adjacent is a crumpled cloud, which Picasso has muddled with an agitated storm of scribbled pencil lines.
The 1955 gift of the picture was important for LACMA, because the Picasso was a special prize. It was painted within a week or two of the completion of his famous monumental picture of the brutal fascist bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica, a picture to which the small canvas bears an obvious relationship.
As the exhibition further demonstrates, for the first time, it also represents the resolution of an important theme that had absorbed Picasso in the months leading up to "Guernica" and that preoccupied him for several months after.
Almost never did Picasso paint faces that portrayed intensely descriptive emotion. The series of weeping women, which appear in about 60 drawings, prints and paintings throughout 1937, are an anomaly. Where did they come from?
The show's organizer, Judi Freeman, convincingly shows how the intersection of political events, represented by the Spanish civil war, and of personal relationships, in the artist's notoriously tangled romantic life, conspired to give us these remarkable pictorial essays on human sorrow.
And with a gentle swipe at the admittedly insightful "boy's club" of scholars who dominate Picasso studies, the show's fine catalogue suggests that their admiring identification with the artist has kept them from seeing the unusual significance of the pictures of weeping women.
The show is divided into galleries with portraits of each of the principal women then in Picasso's romantic life. (There were also a few passing affairs.) He was estranged from his wife, Russian ballet dancer Olga Koklova. He was growing tired of his mistress, Marie-Therese Walter. And he was embarking on a new liaison with Surrealist photographer Dora Maar, who helped him to create "Guernica."
The political trauma of the Spanish civil war, in which the devastation of the Basque town was not unlike that in Sarajevo today, is necessarily represented by reproductions because "Guernica" cannot travel. A photograph (to scale) of Picasso's monumental painting, and of a dozen studies for figures in the mural, is accompanied by an eight-minute, unfinished documentary film, commissioned in 1949 from the legendary director of "Nanook of the North," Robert Flaherty.
The photo-mural and the film flank a gallery with four drawings, seven prints and six paintings of weeping women. Although no weeping women are in the final version of "Guernica," the relationship between the mural and the smaller pictures is plain to see.
So is their connection to the forms employed in his portraits: the sharp, angular, skull-like heads of the bitterly estranged Koklova; the sumptuously erotic, organic images of Walter; the keen-eyed intelligence of Maar. Personal passions merge with political ones in the weeping women, in a manner unique in all of Picasso's oeuvre . And LACMA's picture is where those conflicted passions are initially resolved.
The show is of further significance because museums regularly pay empty lip service to the idea of exhibitions that illuminate their own collections. Like 1989's "The Dada and Surrealist Word-Image," also organized by Freeman at LACMA, and which examined the historical context for the museum's famous Magritte masterpiece, "This Is Not a Pipe," this one actually does it--and brilliantly.
Freeman, who until last summer was a LACMA curator and is now in that post at the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art, has assembled 36 works to tell her story. Among them is the "Weeping Woman" from London's Tate Gallery, the greatest of the series, to which LACMA's runs a close second. The presentation may not be huge, but it's more absorbing than any number of museum exhibitions twice its size.
* LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 857-6000, through May 1. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.