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Sunday, October 9, 2011

ART BIZ | Picasso, "Acrobat on a Ball" in Madrid

Picasso, "Acrobat on a Ball" (1905)
Alice and I celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary in the last week of September. We were in Madrid, Pamplona and Barcelona during the week. We were in Barcelona on the day of the last bullfight. The animal-rights advocates in Catalonia have succeeded in ending bullfights. But they continue in Madrid and elsewhere.

When market-conscious Americans think of Spain these days they likely have a mental image of a series of Euro dominoes with Spain next in line if European patience with reform of Greek finances collapses.

But when you are there in Spain in the eye of the storm, the signs of crisis are not always obvious and they come and go. In Madrid, we visited the Prado Museum, Spain’s preeminent art museum. There it was in all its splendor, quietly waiting for tourists like us.

My major takeaways from a museum are usually historical – I get a better sense of what was happening at a particular time and place. Time travel indeed.

This time, my major takeaway was a painting that reached me on a level beyond history. If you were in Madrid in late September, you can’t not know that the Prado has Picasso's "Acrobat on a Ball" (1905), on loan until December from the Moscow State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. The Prado features it on all of its advertising. I last visited the Prado as a teenager with my family in 1955. The stretch of time between my two visits to the museum is six years longer than the lapse of time from when the painting was done and my first visit. Time shrinks as one gets older and the past seems closer.

From the time-travel perspective, the painting was at an important point in Picasso’s life, when he had started selling his paintings and was able to emerge from his poverty-stricken years in Paris – the years dominated by his downbeat Blue Period. He had a settled life with Fernande Olivier. He was morphing into his more positive rose period, although his early misery must have contributed to his being a life-long Communist (his face appears on a Soviet postage stamp).

Picasso was spending his time in 1905 with Paris's Medrano Circus and many of his paintings of the circus nomads focus on their uprootedness. In the “Acrobat on a Ball”, much more is going on. Certainly, the two people in the foreground are disconnected from the country scene suggested in the background. All of the people and animals in the background are facing away – a mother, her child, a dog and a horse. Only possibly is a tiny baby looking at the two performers.

But the two circus performers are powerfully connected. Picasso shows the ethereal essence of the acrobat, painting her rotating on the ball, her body and hands adjusting to the roll of the round platform. Her boyish figure adds to the sense of joy and fluidity. She enjoys her performance and that she is being looked at. The athlete in the foreground – like the acrobat, a circus performer – is there for contrast and unity. His square planted body contrasts with her fluid one. The large cube, his knee echoing the squareness of the box, contrasts with her smaller ball. The colors reinforce the opposition and complementarity.

It’s a painting of yin and yang, female and male. A lovely painting - a fascinating study, and especially appropriate for a 40th wedding anniversary.

On our way out we were reminded again that all is not well in Spain. The roads around the Prado were filling with thousands of striking teachers. One of the signs said: “If you don’t like the cost of education, wait till you find out the cost of ignorance.” Not a totally new idea, but seeing it there in Madrid, in English, somehow made me more confident that Spain and Europe will continue to apply patience and persistence to the problems of the European Union and the Euro. I don't expect immediate solutions but I think that Europe will find a way through its severe current problems, which are not helping the U.S. recovery.

P.S. This post as of May 22, 2014, has been looked at 1,000 times since it was published.