What’s Black and White and Picasso All Over?

Picasso’s infatuation with the artistic past comes across in his 1957 The Maids of Honorin which the artist takes Velazquez’s tour de force Las Meninas and reimagines it through his modern perspective.

Your college art history textbook probably tore Pablo Picasso’s oeuvre into more digestible bits such as “Blue Period” and “Rose Period.” A new exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City adds a new “period” to the list—Picasso’s lifelong “Black and White Period.” In Picasso Black and White, which runs through January 23, 2013, we see how Picasso often stripped his art of color entirely to focus primarily on getting the message across through line and symbol. Ironically, the “realest Picasso” may not be the artist working in blue or rose or the man living a long, colorful existence, but rather the creator of colorless, powerful scenes and sculptures. By the time you get to the end of the exhibition, you’ll know the answer to the question,What’s black and white and Picasso all over?”

Guggenheim Curator Carmen Giménez, previous curator of Picasso’s Picassos and the first woman inducted as an Academician of Honor by Spain’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts (Real Academia de bellas artes de San Fernando), gathers together 118 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper by Picasso from 1904 to 1971 to show just how pervasive his infatuation with black and white was. As movements and periods came and went for the chameleon Picasso, the simplicity of working in black and white always remained. As the exhibition marches chronologically through Picasso’s career—from early monochromatic “blue” and “rose” period paintings, to gray-toned Cubist paintings, to neoclassical portraits and nudes, to Surrealist figures, to stark social comments on war, to allegorical still lifes, to riffs on masterpieces of past masters, and finally to when Picasso brought sexy back in his final years—you realize that the common thread holding all of it together is his use of black and white.

Giménez previously curated Picasso’s Picassos, and some works in the show belonged to Picasso at his death, including a large charcoal drawing from 1909 titled Female Nude with Guitar, a subject that Picasso continued to employ more than six decades later. In many ways, this entire show features “Picasso’s Picassos” in the sense that these are the works closest to what he wanted to do and say. Six works appear in public for the first time ever, including Draped Nude Seated in an Armchair (from 1923) and Boat and Figures (from 1938). Picasso’s infatuation with the artistic past, especially that of his Spanish heritage, comes across in his 1957 The Maids of Honor (Las Meninas, after Velazquez), in which Picasso takes Velazquez’s tour de force Las Meninas and reimagines it through his modern perspective.

Perhaps the most fascinating piece for me in the show is Picasso’s Mother with Dead Child II, Postscript to Guernica (Femme avec enfant mort II, Post-scriptum à Guernica) (from 1937, shown above). This painting revisits the larger painting now known as Guernica, but focuses tightly on a single woman and child rather than the entire panorama of horror. In this painting the ghost of Goya looms large, not just in terms of subject matter, but also in terms of technique. Goya’s Los Desastres de la Guerra (or The Disasters of War) reduced war to a series of smaller, highly personal and highly human disasters using a simple scheme of black and white imagery. Picasso realized that Guernica broadcast war’s horror, but also realized that it lost something of the human scale in the painting’s oversized dimensions and, later, oversized reputation. If Picasso’s removed color to reduce the signal-to-noise ratio of his work, ie, the message he hoped to signify through the “noise” of medium and technique, then this “postscript” to Guernica reduces the ratio even more.

Giménez claims that “the graphic quality of Picasso's black-and-white works harks back to Paleolithic cave paintings created from charcoal and simple mineral pigments to the tradition of grisaille, and to European drawing.” Picasso often remarked that he wanted to draw as a child would, but in the works shown in Picasso Black and White, Picasso harks back to the childhood of mankind itself—primal, honest, uncultured in the best sense. Picasso slipped so easily through the movements of modern art—often defining them, but never letting them define him—that he remains a slippery master to master in any sense. For all the splashy, colorful exhibitions around the globe each year featuring Picasso, Picasso Black and White might be the only one that contains Picasso reduced to his most basic core.

[Image: Pablo Picasso. Mother with Dead Child II, Postscript to Guernica (Femme avec enfant mort II, Post-scriptum à Guernica). Grands-Augustins, Paris, September 26, 1937. Oil on canvas, 130 x 195 cm. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, Bequest of the artist. © 2012 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: © Archivo fotográfico Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.]

[Many thanks to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City for providing me with the image above and other press materials related to Picasso Black and White, which runs through January 23, 2013.]

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Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case

Image: SRF
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  • Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
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The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it wasn't: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Serbians are historically very attached to it. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that recognise the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it actually has a lot of international support for that position (2).

The irony is that on the longer term, both Kosovo and Serbia want the same thing: EU membership. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued, between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics and not a few locals warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovar independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

In principle, countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging, but land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the Meuse river (3). But those bits of land were tiny, and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders carry a lot more weight in the Balkans.

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