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Picasso, The Reservoir, Horta de Ebro

Pablo Picasso, The Reservoir, Horta de Ebro, oil on canvas, summer 1909, 24-1/8 x 20-1/8" (MoMA, fractional and promised gift). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) Voiceover: We're on the fifth floor of the Museum of Modern Art looking at a painting by Pablo Picasso from 1909. From the summer of 1909, Horta de Ebro, and it's one of Picasso's critical early cubist paintings. Voiceover: It looks very cubist, already. (laughter) I mean, it already looks like a radical departure from Cézanne. But this is two years after Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Voiceover: Yeah. Voiceover: So he's already made that step. Voiceover: He has. This is one of those paintings that lives up to the title of the movement, right? Voiceover: Cubism? Voiceover: Yeah. Voiceover: Because it really looks like little cubes. Voiceover: It does. Our historical chronology is usually that after Desmoiselles, Braque really begins to explore Cézanne in very serious ways. Picasso responds to- Voiceover: Follows Braque. Voiceover: Yeah, by way of Cézanne, exactly, right. And he'd gone to the South of Spain to this very arid environment and you can really get a sense of the terracotta. We're looking at a hilltop town. There's a little water collect down at the bottom right and, actually, you can even see the reflection in the surface of the water there. Of course what most people find so interesting about this painting is his willingness to pull and push perspective. Voiceover: Mm hm. So that we're looking, sometimes, at the top of things and the sides of things. From below and from above as though we were moving and shifting our gaze through the site. Voiceover: Yeah, so that the objects become plastic, they become, you know, malleable, they become shaped by our movement through space and through time. Voiceover: But they're also all interconnected. That thing that Picasso, and Cézanne started also before him, of interlocking these different planes by color so that something that's brown moves into something else that's brown that is a different shape that's the top of a house that moves into the side of a house. So that there's really a kind of loss of the separation of different forms in a space. Voiceover: It becomes a synthetic hole. And actually, he's doing something else that I think further assists that. If you look at shadow and reflection, they become almost objects in space themselves rather than just, sort of, optical phenomena. Voiceover: What do you mean? Voiceover: Well if you look, for instance, at some of the doorways in the center of the canvas, you can see that there are shadows and reflections that cast of it that are, in some ways, almost as solid as the objects that are purported to create those optical phenomena, right? So there's almost this leveling of object and the visual. Voiceover: And surface? Voiceover: More than surface. Object and, in a sense, the visual- Voiceover: Phenomena. Voiceover: Phenomena. Something that is pure sight and intangible becomes as important in the canvas as a building. Voiceover: Maybe the way that we begin to see in Les Demoiselles that the space itself between the figures seems solid. Voiceover: Yes, exactly right. Voiceover: Okay. The other thing that struck me as funny when you said that this was a village was that I imagine sunlight in a landscape and there's no sense of it here to me at all. Voiceover: There isn't, you're right. It's funny that light has been ... I mean, light is clearly the thing that constructs form here. Voiceover: Right. Voiceover: You've got shadow, you've got areas of light, but in fact, there is no actual- Voiceover: No. Voiceover: Direction. It almost has more to do with the subjective experience of one's sight as one moves through, the way in which light is cast or shadows cast, than what is, in fact, from nature. Voiceover: Right. And the other thing that strikes me is the way that, for example, you were talking about those doorways. The one in the center really looks like a doorway into something. But just to the left of that, there's something else that seems to be a doorway that also casts a shadow but is also much more obviously a stroke of paint. Voiceover: Right and it almost seems like a positive form in front of the building in a sense. Voiceover: Right. And yet it's also a brush stroke. Voiceover: That's right. That's wonderful. So there's this constant sort of dislocation of the way in which form is constructed. So it's not just about the rendering of form, it's not just the observing of form. It's actually also, sort of, this funny dislocating of the process of rendering form. Voiceover: Right. Voiceover: Yeah. Voiceover: It's very self-conscious in a very modern way. Voiceover: It certainly is. (piano music)