Picasso's (sort of) R-rated 'David and Bathsheba'

Picasso's (sort of) R-rated 'David and Bathsheba'
Detail of Picasso. 'David and Bathsheba.' Art Institute Chicago.

If there's one thing one can say about David's role in his 2 Samuel 11 encounter with Bathsheba it's that he is absolutely conspicuous. No matter how chaotic and large scale a depiction of the scene a painter undertakes, the king is easy to spot. He's the leering, dirty old man gazing down from the roof on the naked, bathing beauty.

Cranach David and Bathsheba

Lucas Cranach the Elder. 'David and Bathsheba.' 1526

But when he appears on the roof at the top of Lucas Cranach the Elder's painting David and Bathsheba (1526), David is shown playing his harp. The artist, evidently, wasn't convinced that the Jewish king would be identifiable without including his attribute that identifies him as the "sweet singer of Israel."

In Cranach's interpretation of the biblical scene, there's also a new cast of characters.

Attendants are often depicted around the bathing Bathsheba, but the German artist's addition of three people on the roof next to David is somewhat of an anomaly -- not to mention the G-rated interpretation of Bathsheba bathing her feet, rather than in the nude. Clearly the king had some kind of foot fetish, and Bathsheba's adorable ankles just made him fall head over heels.

Although his lithograph, David and Bathsheba, inspired by Cranach's work was created more than 400 years later, Picasso maintained much of Cranach's choreography of the scene, as well as his puritanical interpretation. But Picasso's lithograph -- which is one of more than 200 works in the Art Institute of Chicago's new exhibit Picasso and Chicago (Feb. 20 -- May 12, 2013) -- makes a few important changes.

Picasso David Bathsheba Art Institute Chicago

Pablo Picasso, after Lucas Cranach the Edler. 'David and Bathsheba,' 1947.

For one thing, although Bathsheba -- the inadvertent temptress -- is all buttoned and zipped up, and her head is covered in Picasso's rendition, one of the queen-to-be's busty attendants exposes her cleavage as she washes Bathsheba's feet. In Picasso's upside-down biblical world, the harp-bearing king gaze ignores the attendant and still fixes on Bathsheba.

Although Picasso maintains many of the major elements of Cranach's work -- from the plants to the number of figures to the composition (although his is rotated 180 degrees -- he abstracts some of the elements. The figures surrounding the king, for example, don't exactly appear human, even as the king is rendered with a good deal of shading. And whereas Cranach painted the women's dresses in painstaking detail and in full color, it's not totally clear in Picasso's black-and-white lithograph where people end and where the plants and architecture begin.

Perhaps most interestingly, Picasso plays with fingers and toes. In the bottom right corner, there's a delightful confusion of Bathsheba's toes and the foot-washer's fingers -- all of which echo the forms of the leaves that surround the figures. And the kings cartoony hands, as they fly across his harp, mirror the hills and valleys in his crown. What better symbol could there be for the events of the books of Samuel and Kings, one wonders, then a crown composed of fingers? Just as dirty fingers can usurp the throne, so too does the divine hand remove the crown from the unworthy.

This sort of inventiveness comes up often in the Art Institute exhibit, even if it can feel underwhelming at times. The story of Picasso and Chicago can be tenuous too. As was mentioned so early and often at the press preview that it came off as a bit of a Midwestern inferiority complex vis. the coasts, the Art Institute was the first U.S. museum to show Picasso's work. But even early on in his catalog essay "Picasso Not in America," Adam Gopnik sets up the problem:

Although Picasso never came to America, or to Chicago, the idea of America -- of the American city, the American mind, and the American ambition -- is, in complicated ways, central to his work.

Complicated indeed, particularly as that narrative gets stretched pretty thin throughout the show. In complicated ways, it may be most fruitful to read the great catalog essays by Gopnik and Stephanie D'Alessandro, the Art Institute's curator of modern art, and to consider them separately from the exhibit. The exhibit is well worth seeing just for a few pieces alone -- such as The Old Guitarist, Nude with a Pitcher, and several fine etchings.

But short of being conscious that one is viewing Picasso works in a museum in Chicago, it's hard -- as one walks through the enormous exhibit -- to feel the alleged connection between the city and the artist.

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