25 January - 13 April 2020
‘It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child’ said Picasso. And so the RA’s immense new exhibition proves, opening with a tiny paper cut out dog – no less than a couple of inches long – that carries the exact sprightly look of a Cairn terrier in profile. This was Picasso aged 8. Next comes a classical charcoal nude with a perfect bottom, drawn aged 12. By the end of the exhibition we’re watching a documentary film of the artist on summer holiday experimenting with prototype felt tip pens: it’s Picasso aged 74.
This childlike playfulness threads through the entire exhibition. The last Picasso blockbuster in London was the Tate Modern’s spectacular 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy. The RA’s Picasso and Paper offers something entirely different, instead of one year we see an entire lifetime, instead of great masterpieces we see what’s in the margins; the scrapbooks filled with sketches and the ideas that went into making them. The scope of the display is vast, with 300 works filling the petrol-blue walls of the main galleries and spanning from Cubist cardboard guitars to Surrealist stream-of-consciousness poems to bronze sculptures and costume designs for the ballet.
Part of the joy is that unlikely works are given the spotlight. We’re shown preparations for Picasso’s great masterpieces – Guernica for example is referenced with preparatory drawings, sketches, newspaper clippings and photographs of the work in progress. But in the same room the glory is given to another enormous work from that year, Femmes à leur toilette (1937-8). Shown in the UK for the first time in over 50 years, it’s an epic collage made up of wallpaper samples thought to depict Dora Maar in the centre having her hair combed by Picasso’s side-lined first wife Olga Khoklova with former lover Marie-Thérèse holding up a mirror to the right.
But best of all are the tiny details made accessible in this show. The recipient of a great many letters, we discover Picasso’s method for marking envelopes with an eye – meaning they needed further attention. There’s the single inky line of a fist clutching a hammer and sickle drawn over the front page of a wartime newspaper. There’s a colourful postcard to Guillaume Apollinaire and sailing boats and palm trees sketched on headed paper from the Grand Hotel Victoria in Naples in 1916 where he was holidaying with Olga. A hoarder, it seems every scrap of paper has been saved and there is just so much to look at.
After the show – when you’ll be feeing inspired to pick up a pencil – go all the way through the excellent exhibition shop to the very back where’s there’s the wonderful Petit Café laid with red gingham tablecloths. Here you can order a coffee and madeleine and doodle on brown paper amongst a gallery of Picasso prints. These are available to buy thanks to the RA’s collaboration with Galerie Mourlot, New York. The collection of 31 rare lithographic prints ranging from £475 – £8500 are framed and are selling fast so best be quick if you want to nab one. Open every Friday until 10pm, there will also be a special late opening until 8pm this Saturday 25 January – the day it opens – so book tickets now.