Tue, 28 Mar 2023

As part of the Picasso Celebration (1973-2023), the Musee de l'Homme in Paris hs opened its doors on an exhibition today highlighting how prehistory influenced Picasso's work.

April 2023 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso.

To mark the 50th anniversary of his death, museums and galleries acorss Europe will take part in the Picasso Celebration (1973-2023), which is built around around some fifty exhibitions and events that, taken together, offer a historial perspective of Picasso's work.

In the case of this exhibition, the Musee de l'Homme has taken a look at the artists' fascination with prehistory.

The roots go back to the the 1920s and 1930s.

During the 1920s and '30s in Europe, a number of discoveries were made by archaeologists and prehistorians, and published in illustrated art magazines which Picasso regularly consulted.

The primitive Venus of Lespugue, one of the most iconic figures in the artworld, was discovered in 1922 in the Rideaux cave in the Pyrenees by Rene de Saint-Perier.

The first handprint - or negatives of handprints - were found in the cave of El Castillo in Spain and the caves of Gargas in France in the early 19th century.

Venus of Lespugue

Soon after the little Venus of Lespugue was placed in the collection of the Paris' Museum of Natural History Picasso acquired casts ot it.

"You can see the connection, hear the resonance between the object itself and much of Picasso's work," curator Cecile Godefroy told RFI.

"In Picasso's themes, there are mainly feminine figures - feminine and phallic sometimes at the same time."

This is the case for the "Venus du gaz" which is a 'found object': a gas cooker that Picasso took out of a domestic setting "to erect the object vertically and set it up as a modern-day goddess."

"It is a very moving object. Because it is both graceful and a little massive, necessarily asymmetrical with the two pipes that serve as legs for this little figure," says Godefroy.

"And this round belly made up of small perforations and surmounted by a small head, which reminds us of all those primitive goddesses discovered over the course of the 20th century."


Picasso did not visit the caves of Altamira or Lascaux but through the Cahiers d'Art found another subject that fascinated him: the negative (or positive) handprints found on cave walls.

"Picasso also made a plaster cast of his own hand, the hand that creates, the hand of the creative artist. There's also a negative hand on a sugar plate he realised in 1936," explains Godefroy.

"These discoveries and the parietal decorations are of an exemplary modernity, which validates Picasso's thought that there is no past in art."

Picasso and his 'cavern'

Some 40 works, most of which were produced in the inter-war period, are displayed in the exhibition Picasso and Prehistory.

Visitors can also see tiny pebbles that Picasso engraved with animal heads or human faces.

There is also a collection of animal skulls and bones that the artist kept in his sculpture workshop in Boisgeloup, a property he acquired in 1930, where he used to work - mostly at night.

"His sculpture studio was simply lit by a paraffin lamp - as photographed by Brassaï, the Hungarian photographer in 1932 - which restores a little of that cavernous, almost matrix-like atmosphere of creation, which gave rise to a whole people of female figures who were modelled by Picasso," explains Godefroy.

Picasso et la Prehistoire runs from 8 February to 12 June 2023 at the Musee de l'Homme in Paris.

Originally published on RFI

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