Finally, from Picasso’s Ballet Russes phase, there’s Two Ballet Dancers (1919), a comical take on the desire and artifice inherent to performance. Two ballerinas—all breasts, big hands and flaring nostrils—take the stage, a sexualized tribute to Degas’s favorite subject. These women are no “stage rats,” though—they are muscular-armed and thick-waisted, as solid and monumental as elephants. You get the feeling that this is Picasso’s type—one Ballet Russes dancer, Olga Khokhlova, would become his first wife.
A final room of drawings from a 1921 stay in Fontainebleau, where he, Olga and their new baby, Paulo, spent the summer, gives us big sentimental graphite heads in pastel and charcoal. Here, Picasso is channeling Renoir, and is at his most simplified, calm and “timeless.” These pieces represent a tranquil period for the artist. He’d made the transition from the precocious child of a drawing teacher to a 40-year-old man with a wife and child of his own, drawing constantly. He would continue to do so until his death some 50 years later.
Organized by Susan Grace Galassi of the Frick and Marilyn McCully, an independent scholar, with Andrew Robison of the National Gallery of Art, the show manages to conjure a Picasso more familiar from European museum collections than from American blockbusters. The exhibition’s larger thesis is that innovation, and specifically Modernism, emerges from a thorough engagement with the past; this seems a fitting lesson for a show about a canonical artist who still, it would seem, has a few new tricks to teach us.