Ambroise Vollard by Picasso
"Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was one of the world's greatest draughtsmen," Susan Grace Galassi, Senior Curator at the Frick Collection in New York, declares at the outset of her introductory essay in the catalogue of a recent exhibition of Picasso drawings, subtitled Reinventing Tradition, at the Frick and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The only other artist she accords "one of the world's greatest draughtsmen" status in her essay is Michelangelo. Galassi avers that the "system of training" Picasso underwent "had remained relatively unchanged since the Renaissance".
Ironically, it is precisely because of that training that Picasso has come to be regarded as a sort of Old Master manqué. Hence a Hegelian narrative: the youthful prodigy mastered "the conventions of classical representation". Thesis. Abandoning the academy at the age of 16, he rebelled against those conventions. Antithesis. But in doing so he would go on to "reinvent" them. Synthesis.
The big problem here is that many art historians assume that the instruction received by Picasso and Ingres, who was born almost exactly a century before him, was essentially the same. After all, both followed the hallowed pedagogical sequence: copying prints (known as copying "from the flat"), then moving on to drawing plaster casts of antique sculpture, then proceeding to drawing the figure from life. But the apparent similarity masks a chasm, and that chasm has a lot to tell us not only about Modernism's advent and Picasso's own artistic trajectory, but also about serious lapses in contemporary scholarship.
Precisely because Galassi's assessment of Picasso's status as a draughtsman comparable to Michelangelo assumes his "mastery of the conventions of classical representation", her Hegelian thesis is untenable. The fault lay not in Picasso, but in his dumbed-down, late-academic training. A case in point is Picasso's portrait of Ambroise Vollard, which was included in the Frick exhibition.
In his thirties and forties, Picasso produced a number of pencil portraits that took their stylistic cues — specifically, their emphasis on sinuous line — from Ingres. Picasso was notoriously smitten with Ingres's draughtsmanship. Even as a 22-year-old enfant terrible, he had made a pilgrimage to his illustrious predecessor's hometown of Montauban to visit the Musée Ingres. The year was 1904.