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Picasso Paints His Mistress; Helion’s Suave Nudes: Review

May 29, 2012

"Abstraction" (1939) by Jean Helion. This early abstract oil painting by Helion is among some 30 pictures in a beautiful retrospective on view through June 30. It corresponds with the republication of the artist's WWII memoir "They Shall Not Have Me." Source: Schroeder Romero & Shredder via Bloomberg

"Abstraction" (1939) by Jean Helion. This early abstract oil painting by Helion is among some 30 pictures in a beautiful retrospective on view through June 30. It corresponds with the republication of the artist's WWII memoir "They Shall Not Have Me." Source: Schroeder Romero & Shredder via Bloomberg

In Francoise Gilot’s 1964 memoir, “Life with Picasso,” a famous photograph shows the couple walking together at a sunny resort on France’s Cote d’Azur. Picasso, 40 years her senior, follows dutifully behind his beautiful mistress and holds a large beach umbrella high above her head -- as if he were her slave and she his princess.

Picasso worshipped and treated all of his lovers -- his successive muses -- like royalty.

And in many of his masterly portraits of Gilot (born 1921), on view in the fascinating exhibition “Picasso and Francoise Gilot: Paris-Vallauris, 1943-1953,” he’s Velazquez to the Spanish queen.

The couple’s decade-long romance and life with their two young children, Claude and Paloma, is the subject of this exhibition, which fills Gagosian’s uptown space with Picasso’s magnificent pictures and sculptures, a breathtaking vitrine of decorated ceramic plates and vases, and, elsewhere, a nude painted on a wood door.

Comprising about 180 works, it is the fourth show in a series organized by Picasso biographer John Richardson. Despite a few maudlin pictures by a doting father, Picasso is at his inventive and protean best here.

Numerous paintings, drawings and two large printed portrait series of Gilot, as imaginative as his earlier “Vollard Suite,” transform Picasso’s subject into plants, flowers and birds and give her the regal frontality of playing cards.

Loaded Catapult

Tender, erotic, humorous, confounding, this show explores every aspect of family life. In one blue-gray painting from 1952, of a bather wringing out her hair, Gilot is both loaded catapult and building storm.

In others she is a complex, abstract puzzle Picasso can’t quite figure out.

And in sculptures and ceramics, which seem to span the styles of almost every ancient culture, Gilot is transformed into goddess, monster, musical instrument, totem and cloud.

The exhibition falls off considerably in the section devoted to about 30 pictures from the same decade by Gilot, who was an artist at 21 when she met Picasso in a Paris restaurant.

Gilot is a competent painter. But these family portraits occupy a realm somewhere between academic realism and Picasso pastiche.

Runs through June 20 at Gagosian Gallery, 980 Madison Ave. Information: +1-212-744-2313; http://www.gagosian.com.

Jean Helion

The occasion for the compact, beautiful retrospective “Jean Helion: Five Decades” at Schroeder Romero & Shredder is the republication of Helion’s seminal 1943 war memoir “They Shall Not Have Me,” which he wrote in English in New York City.

It thrillingly chronicles the French writer and painter’s capture, 2-year incarceration, hard labor and escape from Nazi prison camps.

Influenced by Mondrian, Helion (1904-87) was a key figure in the School of Paris. He began as an important and influential abstractionist and, later, became a figurative painter.

Yet he chose not to depict his World War II ordeals. A profound poet-painter of the everyday, instead he worked in universal themes and allegories.

Mystical Nudes

He gave inimitable, off-hand elegance -- even mysticism -- to nudes, baguettes, still lifes, bicycles, giant pumpkins and car accidents. Street scenes depict men in fedoras reading newspapers and mannequins in shop windows.

This show of some 30 pictures touches on about his whole career. The long, horizontal masterpiece “Abstraction” (1939) conflates volumetric monument and flat frieze.

In the almost surreal “Nu Accoude” (1949), a seated, daydreaming, female nude is threatened by the claw-like wrinkles of the bed sheet.

In “Untitled” (1957), men standing in a group read newspapers, which flutter in their hands like captured white birds.

And in the large “Remake” (1983), a violet-tinged naked female bursts through an open window, apparently knocking a man to the ground, capturing the force of the nude both in person and in art.

Helion’s commonplace objects, acts and subjects become stand-ins for everything and every man. Equally sacred and profane, they are emissaries for our age.

Runs through June 30 at Schroder Romero & Shredder, 531 W. 26th St. Information: +1-212-630-0722; http://srandsgallery.com.

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include reviews of dining and books.

To contact the writer of the review: Lance Esplund in New York at lesplund@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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