New York Review of Books
November 20, 2014
A show on Pablo Picasso may seem an odd occurrence in Florence, but the exhibition Picasso and Spanish Modernism at Palazzo Strozzi makes a cogent case for its location with the very first objects we encounter: a 1963 painting of The Painter and the Model, and a copy—from a Florentine library—of Ambroise Vollard’s luxurious 1931 edition of Honoré de Balzac’s short story The Unknown Masterpiece (first published in 1831) with Picasso’s illustrations. The Balzac illustrations range from a pure classical line worthy of Flaxman to an equally pure, revolutionary abstraction, and sometimes both tendencies can be found, arrestingly, in a single image.
By the end of his life, Picasso had become an Old Master in his own right, but not before he had devoured the works of past Old Masters with his all-seeing, all-hungering eye and processed them into something new. Like Leonardo da Vinci, he continually accounts for the world, in various media, by way of his own ravenous sight, and like Leonardo Picasso draws his fellow creatures, human and animal, with eyes that flash with intelligent life, from the clutch of fishes in his painting Conger Eels (1940) to the agonized horse whose scream reverberates through all the sketches leading up to the great Guernica—not to mention the women who weep, some at the cruel 1937 German bombing raid on a defenseless Basque town, the first civilian bombing of World War II, some for the sheer agony of loving Picasso.
In the past few years, under James Bradburne, the Anglo-Canadian director of the Palazzo Strozzi Foundation, this big Renaissance mansion has become a home for madcap genius, its ponderous doors thrown wide open to the city, its coffee shop and friendly benches ministering to weary passersby whether or not they climb the stairs to see what is being shown. The exhibitions, meanwhile, which have included Imperial China, Galileo, Bronzino, Jacopo Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino, the Russian Avant-Garde, and the fifteenth-century “Springtime of the Renaissance,” have been coming along at a consistent rate and at a consistent standard of quality; they’ve also been bolstered by a remarkable children’s program—every exhibition has its own child-level labels, a special children’s book, and twelve exquisite little custom-made suitcases: bags of tricks for families to take around on their visit.