The RA advises leaving up to two hours for perusing this huge exhibition, and it’s easy to see why. Featuring over 300 works – including quick doodles and Femmes à leur toilette, a gigantic collage of over five metres – it showcases a huge range of Picasso’s paper-based creations, from his childhood cut-outs of birds and dogs (confirming the artist’s precocity and mastery of proportion, aged 9) to studies of work by Manet and Delacroix.
Paper, which excited the prodigiously prolific artist as much as any other medium, was an explorative tool for Picasso to develop his ideas, one which he used throughout his 80-year career. All of the artist’s preoccupations and personal tumult are here represented on paper, including works from the Blue and Rose periods and the slide into Cubism. Picasso evidently drew on everything he could get his hands on; as the exhibition shows, there was not a piece of paper (napkins and cafe bills included) that the artist didn’t utilise as a canvas. Famously leaving doodles on restaurant menus in lieu of a tip, Picasso used paper to create misleadingly seemingly simple portraits, effortless line drawings of animals and studies of future artworks like the Guernica and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon which would, upon their completion, garner international fame and acclaim.
As well as the more traditional drawings, the artist applied his characteristic innovation to the medium, tearing and burning it to create masks, crafting sculptures, ballet costumes and even a guitar – all from paper. Offering more personal glimpses into his life are letters, illustrated poems and photographic collaborations with his onetime muse and lover, the artist Dora Maar (herself the subject of an excellent photo exhibition at Tate Modern).
In choosing to focus an entire large-scale exhibition on Picasso’s work with paper, the RA creates an engrossing show, managing the not-insignificant feat of bringing a new perspective to an artist that has always had a lot of airtime.
25 January – 13 April 2020
Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD
Tickets £18–£22; book via royalacademy.org.uk