Imagine Picasso: Nah, see the original works

photo of audience members at Imagine Picasso

In Imagine Picasso, the mash-up of styles results in incoherence. (Photo by me)

The short review is that it doesn’t work. But at least it doesn’t work for interesting reasons.

Encore Productions, the same folks who brought us Imagine Van Gogh, which has now closed in Vancouver, are offering Imagine Picasso. Like Imagine Van Gogh, Imagine Picasso is an immersive event: in Vancouver, you enter a huge room in the Convention Centre and are instantly surrounded by wall-sized projections of images created by the great Spanish artist. Music plays as these paintings and fragments of paintings appear, disappear, and slide down in great sheets towards the floor, which is also covered in projections.

The Van Gogh version of this approach succeeds because Van Gogh’s paintings are unabashedly sensual, decorative, and stylistically consistent. These qualities are less present in Picasso’s oeuvre.

When details from Van Gogh’s canvases are blown up several thousand times, the magnification allows you to revel in the oily thickness of the paint and the energy of the brush strokes. Van Gogh was a masterful colourist: viewing his paintings, you can feel like your vision has been electrified.

Picasso is arguably a more ambitious artist; his output is vastly more varied — and intellectual. Picasso’s paintings can be decorative — especially in his Rose period, with its acrobats and harlequins, but also in his Blue period, in which his subjects are often impoverished but always elegantly arranged. Picasso’s application of paint wasn’t nearly as abandoned as Van Gogh’s, however, so you don’t get anywhere near the same visceral hit from magnifying it, and, because Picasso’s work isn’t as vivid as Van Gogh’s, there isn’t the same pay-off in terms of immersion in colour.

Picasso’s artistic curiosity resulted in several identifiable periods. He flirted with surrealism, for instance, and he’s most famous for his exploration of cubism. Unfortunately, this artistic ambition isn’t well served by Imagine Picasso. The show’s creators, Annabelle Mauger and Julien Baron, who collaborated with art historian Androula Michael, often present imagery from several periods at once — with fragments of abstract pieces butting up against fragments of representational paintings. Especially as presented on architect Rudy Ricciotti’s angular, origami-like projection surfaces, the mash-ups often feel chaotic.

I also question the wisdom of taking a seminal painting like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and presenting it, broken up, on multiple surfaces. In that painting, Picasso is striding towards cubism. In his depiction of five prostitutes, he abandons traditional perspective in favour of two-dimensional representation. The tension, as I experience it, is between the figures and the surface on which they are presented. To get the full impact of this, you have to see the figures within the flat picture frame. In presenting details on the multiple shards and within the three dimensionality of Ricciotti’s sculptural set, it feels like the show’s creators are trying to out-Picasso Picasso — and, for me, their efforts diminish rather than illuminate.

In Imagine Picasso, I was most at home in the presentation of the Rose and Blue periods: in their chromatic consistency, they briefly made the room feel coherent.

Imagine Van Gogh transported me. Imagine Picasso didn’t — and it didn’t create an engaging alternative vocabulary. But Imagine Van Gogh is a hard act to follow.

IMAGINE PICASSO Created by Annabelle Mauger and Julien Baron with Androula Michael. Presented by Encore Productions. At the Vancouver Convention Centre on Saturday, October 30. Currently booking until January 8. Tickets


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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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