Exhibition Review / Picasso and Paper


For many artists, paper has long been used to explore ideas and progress their technique. Preliminary sketches are often a foundational step towards a larger piece, and can be mistakenly forgotten in favour of the finished, final product. Picasso and Paper showcases Picasso’s processes that were at the forefront of his enigmatic production and reminds us that works on paper act as artworks in their own right. By exemplifying Picasso’s use of this medium, the exhibition highlights the numerous possibilities this common, everyday material can provide and the imagination of the artist it celebrates.


Picasso, La Vie (Life), Barcelona, 1903, oil on canvas, The Cleveland Museum of Art

Picasso and Paper is a vast showcase of works that are filled in jam-packed rooms, totalling to over three hundred sketches. Larger canvases are placed next to small pencil sketches in an effort to blend them seamlessly. Even though many of the works build towards a larger piece, such as Guernica, one is constantly yet gently reminded of the focus of the exhibition and Picasso’s wonderful disregard of the norms for art to appear highly ‘finished’ shine throughout.


Picasso, The Artist Drawing and Studies of Hands, 1897 – 1899, conté crayon on wove watercolour paper, Musée Picasso, Paris

Each room has its own theme and runs chronologically, starting with the artist’s famous ‘Blue period’ and moving gradually through to World War Two and the effects this had on his work. What cannot be ignored is Picasso’s constant ability to invent and imagine ways to create, as each work is more unusual and explorative than the last. As The Guardian writes, “at every stage Picasso branches out, making lightbulbs out of paper, ballet costumes out of card, guitars from pasteboard and string.” The breadth of Picasso’s imagination shows no limitations.


The impressive sixteen sketchbooks of design variants for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon are a highlight of the display and provide a glimpse into the extraordinary time and attention Picasso dedicated to a single composition. This room’s energy is deflated, however, by the lack of the final painting. What would have been a triumphant centrepiece is replaced by a rather disappointing digital copy. Despite this, the works on paper carry a weight that repeatedly breaks the barrier between the finished piece and the preliminary. This ambitious exhibition pinpoints Picasso as an artist who moved seamlessly beyond the constraints of Cubism and Surrealism, breaking the boundaries of his own practice and making use of every last bit of material available to him. The themes for each room attempt to give exhibition goers a sense of direction. This works to a certain degree, but as the exhibition continues the beauty of each piece feels forgotten amid the vast sea of works on display. Picasso and Paper succeeds at uncovering a new side to Picasso, but its sheer scale stresses the need to focus and refine, rather than add and overwhelm.


Picasso and Paper is at the Royal Academy in London until 13 April.


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