In the 20th century, Spanish artist Pablo Picasso emerged as an epoch-defining artist. But despite his global fame, he didn’t exist in a vacuum.

A new NGV Melbourne Winter Masterpieces exhibition, The Picasso Century, charts the prolific artist’s extraordinary career alongside more than 60 of his contemporaries, including Natalia Goncharova, Wifredo Lam, Suzanne Valadon and Maria Helena Vieira da Silva.

“More than a Picasso exhibition, this is an exhibition about the 20th century,” says Didier Ottinger, a curator and adjunct director of the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou.

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With more than 80 Picasso works in the exhibition, and more than 100 by other artists of the modern era, there’s a lot to parse. We asked Ottinger to highlight some not-to-be-missed works from The Picasso Century.

Woman With Orange or Woman With Apple, 1934–43 – Pablo Picasso
In the 1930s, Picasso worked with metalsmith Julio González to cast sculptures made from found objects into bronze. One such work is Woman With Orange or Woman With Apple, a sculpture of a woman holding a round object in her hand. Ottinger says this ball recalls the mythical golden apple of Greek legend given by Paris to Aphrodite in exchange for Helen – the event that infamously triggered the Trojan War. Picasso clearly designated this sculpture “as the most beautiful woman of the world”, even though “it’s made of very ordinary stuff,” according to Ottinger. “Some people could find it ugly, but it’s very elegant.”

Gradiva, 1939 – Andre Masson
In Gradiva, a Wilhelm Jensen novel published in 1902, an archaeologist obsessed with a woman depicted in an Ancient Roman bas-relief visits Pompeii, where, in a fever dream, he sees her emerge from a sculpture into the living world. Jensen’s story fascinated both Freud and surrealist painter André Masson, who used it as inspiration for his 1939 work Gradiva. In Masson’s Gradiva, “you see a sculpture becoming a real figure,” says Ottinger. “Stone is becoming flesh. It’s a very poetic painting.”

Massacre in Korea, 1951 – Pablo Picasso
In 1944, Picasso joined the French Communist Party and remained a member until his death in 1973. In 1951, the party commissioned the painter to create an artwork portraying the Communist fight against the Americans in the Korean War.

Picasso used two famous paintings as inspiration. One was The Execution of Maximilian, Edouard Manet’s critique of France’s colonial activity in Mexico. The other was Goya’s The Third of May 1808, depicting a row of French soldiers aiming their guns at Spanish freedom fighters captured during Napoleon’s invasion of Spain. Picasso’s finished painting – Massacre in Korea, showing a firing squad about to fire on a group of naked women and children – “was completely misunderstood by the Communists”, says Ottinger. The Communist Party wanted a literal representation of American soldiers slaughtering Korean civilians, not what they viewed as an “allegorical painting” – even one with a strong anti-war message.

The controversy tarnished the reputation of Massacre in Korea, says Ottinger. “For years, it was considered a sort of complaisance painting” and not a serious work. “But now, with time passing, we can reconsider this painting and see its temporal message and why it’s important.”

The matador * – Pablo Picasso
*The matador
– a sentimental favourite of Ottinger – is one of Picasso’s later works dating from the early ’70s, a period when Picasso had fallen out of favour with the art world. An exhibition of his work at Avignon in 1970 flopped. “It was a critical disaster – every review was very bad,” says Ottinger. The view of the young generation was that the old master was “dead as an artist”.

In The matador, Picasso reflects on his identity as an artist and his exile from the artistic world. “It is an allegory of an artist fighting alone with old tools, with an old way of thinking in a time when pop art …and the rehabilitation of [conceptual artist] Duchamp was the fashion,” says Ottinger. “He was alone – he felt himself as a sort of Don Quixote fighting against windmills. He felt the only friends he had were Rembrandt, Velázquez, Goya – the masters from the 17th century.”

*The Picasso Century runs until October 9 at NGV International. Admission fees apply. More details here.

As an ode to the exhibition and in partnership with the NGV, a rich calendar of hands-on workshops and creative experiences for all ages will be arriving at Chadstone from Friday 10 June to 10 July 2022. More details here

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