Thursday, February 28, 2008

Picasso's Camera


Did you know that a cheap box camera with a cracked lens was responsible for one of the 20th century's most influential artistic careers?

Author Antonina Vallentin: "In 1906 the only contents of Picasso's studio were a day-bed, a long, rickety table, a tub and a small, rusty iron stove which was supposed to serve for cooking and heating. A dim light from a single window fell on festoons of cobwebs hanging from the ceiling. The furniture was completed by two dilapidated chairs. On top the table rested a worn box camera with a cracked lens, and nearby a glass prism."

That camera.

Jef Bourgeau, director of MONA, the Detroit Museum of New Art, mounted an exhaustive exhibition there in 2006, centered around Picasso's photographs. The exhibition's premise was that "a box camera that once belonged to Picasso has been unearthed with a roll of undeveloped film still inside. The resulting photographs -- intriguing images made jagged and more forceful by the accidental marring of the lens by the camera's previous owner -- now lend a sharper clarity to that period when Picasso was still coming to terms with the then revolutionary discipline of cubism."

The story starts with Italian artist and Picasso contemporary Gino Severini willingly giving his broken (and therefore useless) camera to Picasso, who was curious about the odd images it produced. Picasso played with his old new toy and ultimately realized that it showed him a new way to paint.

After Picasso's death his camera and a stack of unregarded negatives were discarded by his widow. Set out by the curb as trash, they were taken as a lot by a rag picker along with other odds and ends, and later sold at a flea market.

Eventually, by means unknown, the camera with film still inside found its way to Swedish collector Peter Hallstrom who "directed the Bergen University professor Dr Åke Neilsen and his team of assistants to supervise the meticulous task of bringing them all back to life" by developing sophisticated computer software with an inherent "aesthetic sense".

Development of the film and careful examination of the negatives in comparison to the artist's known works showed that images made by Picasso with this "defective" camera definitely inspired the cubism movement in the early 20th century.

The exhibit included supporting citations from a whole raft of artists, friends, relatives and scholars, either by quoting them directly or by intertwining the camera story with verifiable events from their lives. Andre Malraux, André Villars, Antonina Vallentin, Brassai, Dora Maar, Edward Steichen, Fernande Olivier, Gertrude Stein, Gino Severini, Jacqueline Roque, and Manuel Pallares are all mentioned, and maybe one or two more that I missed.

This is choice. The best part, according to Jef Bourgeau, is that 95% of the information is true.

Jef Bourgeau is called a "post artist". His talents span film making, video, painting, writing, music and computer art. The exhibition's online archive is priceless. This is a spoof by a true master of his media.

References:

Great review titled "Picasso's Camera" at thedetroiter.com.

Home page of the exhibition.

(The links below also belong to the exhibition.)
Picasso's photography.
Picasso's photos - circa 1905 through 1928.
The exhibition.
Picasso's children.
Picasso's poetry.

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