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Picasso Ingres: Face to Face

  • Art
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Pablo Picasso, Woman with a Book, 1932 Oil on canvas, 130.5 x 97.8 cm The Norton Simon Foundation © Succession Picasso/DACS 2021 / photo The Norton Simon Foundation
Pablo PicassoPablo Picasso, Woman with a Book, 1932 Oil on canvas, 130.5 x 97.8 cm The Norton Simon Foundation © Succession Picasso/DACS 2021 / photo The Norton Simon Foundation

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Two grotty old pervs paint saucy portraits of pretty young girls. That’s the bullet point summary of this tiny but lovely little exhibition. It features just two paintings: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ 1856 masterpiece ‘Madame Moitessier’, and Pablo Picasso’s 1932 riff on it, ‘Woman With a Book’.

Ingres was the great defender of neo-classical orthodoxy, a hugely influential but resolutely conservative master of nineteenth-century French art. Born 100 years later, Pablo Picasso was the opposite, a wild iconoclast, an innovator who destroyed traditions. One preserved, the other annihilated. But Picasso knew how to mine art history for inspiration, and in Ingres’ portrait, he found a nugget of gold.

The 23-year-old woman in Ingres’ work absolutely flows. Just look at her hand, all elongated like its made of five swans’ necks, or her dress which undulates across the canvas, or her swooping limbs, her big, deep round eyes. Somehow, despite the angle, a mirror behind her catches her reflection in profile. It’s a stunning painting of soft skin and hard edges, full of opulent details, a heady celebration of beauty and Parisian luxury.

Picasso replicates Madame Moitessier’s pose in his depiction of his young mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter (28 years junior to old Pablo…). The subtle details of Ingres are chucked out the window. The dress is now flat planes of block colour, the room is stark and minimal, the facial features boiled down to their barest essentials. The reflection in the mirror behind is flat and imposing, the fan in the hand is swapped for a book. Picasso shows Marie-Thérèse in profile and from the front at the same time, like he’s so enamoured with her face that he can’t possibly leave any of it out.

But the same problem comes up again and again when people decide to show historical and modern works ‘in conversation’ with each other: the older works look fusty, frumpy and conservative, and the newer ones look slapdash, low-effort and cheap. You end up comparing the meticulous skill of Ingres with the quick, rough marks of Picasso, the precision with mess, the depth of colour with the flatness of perspective, etc etc etc. It’s unfair, and does no favours to either of them.

But it still just about works here, mainly because both of these are very, very beautiful paintings, and you can see how much Picasso obviously adored Ingres (almost as much as he adored his 17-year-old mistress). There have been more major Picasso exhibitions in London over the past five years than there have been natural wine bar openings, but if you’re going to have just one more, this is a pretty good one.

Eddy Frankel
Written by
Eddy Frankel


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