Early Exhibition Reviews of Famous Artists


Picasso visited Paris for the first time in 1900. The city had such a profound effect on him, he returned the following year with 100 paintings in hand, hoping to land a show. The 19-year-old painter was introduced to Ambroise Vollard — the same dealer who sponsored the works of Cezanne and other notable artists — who immediately secured a spot for him at a gallery on the prestigious Rue Laffitte. Picasso was unknown at the time, but the 75 paintings that ranged from moody portraits to representational works featuring landscapes, prostitutes, and society ladies proved he was extremely talented and driven.

This Sunday marks the 111th anniversary of Picasso’s Paris exhibition. The few critics that did attend the show gave him favorable reviews. Years later, the painter’s exhibit in Switzerland drew enormous crowds and the criticisms of some very prominent figures. Find out who after the break, and see what other reviewers had to say about famous artists throughout history during the early part of their careers.

Pablo Picasso

Picasso’s 1932 Zurich retrospective at the Kunsthaus — which was previously planned as a three-artist show with Léger and Braque — was unusual in that he selected all 225 paintings to be displayed and hung them himself (not in chronological order). The artist drew crowds in record numbers, and more than 30,000 visitors were able to finally see paintings from his Blue and Rose periods, as well as cubist, neo-classical, and still life works all in the same museum.

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung became one of Picasso’s biggest critics, prompted by the retrospective, which the doctor described (the work and the layout of the show) as “schizophrenic” and practically… satanic. “The picture leaves one cold, or disturbs one by its paradoxical, unfeeling, and grotesque unconcern for the beholder. This is the group to which Picasso belongs,” Jung wrote in an article after seeing the exhibit. He also described Picasso’s “underworld form” as that of a “tragic Harlequin.” Jung also wonders aloud what might be next for the artist.

“As to the future Picasso, I would rather not try my hand at prophecy, for this inner adventure is a hazardous affair and can lead at any moment to a standstill or to a catastrophic bursting asunder of the conjoined opposites. Harlequin is a tragically ambiguous figure, even though — as the initiated may discern — he already bears on his costume the symbols of the next stage of development. He is indeed the hero who must pass through the perils of Hades, but will he succeed? That is a question I cannot answer. Harlequin gives me the creeps… ”

Freaking out Jung sounds like the best review ever to us.

Vincent van Gogh

Symbolist poet, critic, and painter Albert Aurier was the first person to review Van Gogh’s paintings in his well-known 1890 article, Les Isolés: Vincent van Gogh in magazine Mercure de France, one month before the artist died. The review may have been in response to Van Gogh’s recent Société des Artistes Indépendants show, but it’s clear that Aurier generally adored the painter. The critic calls the work “strange, intense, and feverish,” and ultimately describes him as a genius. Van Gogh humbly responded with his own letter. “Thank you very much for your article in the Mercure de France, which greatly surprised me. I like it very much as a work of art in itself, I feel that you create colours with your words; anyway I rediscover my canvases in your article, but better than they really are — richer, more significant.”

Paul Cézanne

Cézanne had already recreated his own Olympia inspired by the famous Manet painting, but several years later he made another work that caused a stir at the first impressionist exhibition in 1874. A colorful oil sketch called A Modern Olympia further emphasized the eroticism and heady drama of Manet’s work. Cézanne also created the painting in a new style. In his review of the exhibition critic Marc de Montifaud harshly responded. “Like a voluptuous vision, this artificial corner of paradise has left even the most courageous gasping for breath… and Mr. Cézanne merely gives the impression of being a sort of madman, painting in a state of delirium tremens,” his L’artiste write-up maintained.

Mike Kelley

“[He] isn’t content simply with ironic sculpture,” reads Kelley’s 1981 Art in America review of his Monkey Island and Confusion exhibit at Metro Pictures. “He also paints pictures that look like chiaroscuro Thomas Coles, identifies readymades (his The Last Tool in Use, a dustpan), bears and does drawings that reconcile black-and-white opposites, both chromatic and conceptual… ” The show was the artist’s first one-person exhibition in New York — an installation that Kelly described as an “epic poem… a sailor’s tale. It’s a physiognomic landscape travelogue that seems to dwell mostly in the sexual region.” Clearly he made an indelible impression. Carrie Rickey’s review concludes that “Kelley is reinventing opposites, both chromatic and conceptual… Kelley is reinventing almost every genre of art for himself in order to use them as a backdrop for his performance activity.”

Damien Hirst

Before blinged out skulls and infinite spots became a thing, Hirst was creating installations composed of white paintings and live butterflies. In and Out of Love was his first solo exhibition, which was set up at a shop in London, 1991. Guardian writer Adrian Searle said that the work had “enormous spirit and great originality, and that [he] was glad [Hirst] was around.” Eighteen years later, Searle’s opinion drastically changed. In 2009 he called Hirst’s paintings a “memento mori for a reputation.”

Lucian Freud

Master figure painter Lucian Freud left his post as a merchant seaman just a few years before his first one-man show at Lefevre Gallery in 1944. His playful and symbolic work The Painter’s Room was one of the pieces on display, created in a style he would eventually migrate from in favor of fleshy canvases focusing on human forms. Reviews of the show were apparently mixed. An article in The Listener said the artist “has a cultivated feeling for line, when he can be bothered with it, and a natural feeling for colour,” while The Spectator review pronounced that “the human forms defeats [Freud] because he does not observe it as he does dead birds.”

Willem de Kooning

De Kooning was 44 years old in 1948 when he had his first solo exhibition. Although De Kooning was a well-known figure in abstract expressionist circles during the 1940s, he struggled elsewhere. The show took place at New York’s Charles Egan Gallery, where ten of his highly abstract, black and white paintings were exhibited to mixed reviews and little press. (1948’s Painting did sell to MoMA for a lousy $700 — a deal for the ages.) Clement Greenberg wrote that the paintings didn’t contain any “identifiable” images, and called him an “outright ‘abstract’ painter.” This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, as Greenberg also called the exhibit a “magnificent first show” and said the artist was “one of the four or five most important painters in the country.”

Frida Kahlo

Eccentric surrealist maestro André Breton fell in love with Mexico during his visit in 1938, but one artist’s paintings also attracted his affections. He assisted Frida Kahlo in organizing her first solo exhibit at New York’s Julian Levy Gallery, even writing a the exhibition catalog preface, which read: “The art of Frida Kahlo is a ribbon around a bomb.” He also said her work had a “mixture of candour and insolence.” Time wrote about the show, which was a critical success, noting “Frida’s pictures, mostly painted in oil on copper, had the daintiness of miniatures, the vivid reds and yellows of Mexican tradition, the playfully bloody fancy of an unsentimental child.”

Man Ray

In October 1915, a 25-year-old Man Ray had his first solo show consisting paintings and drawings, simply titled Exhibition of Drawings and Paintings by Man Ray. Flattened, abstract artworks hung next to landscapes and figures, all presented frameless and flush against a cheesecloth wall to create the illusion that the images had been painted directly on its surface, thereby stressing their two-dimensionality. Critics hated it and the newer work, preferring his traditional pieces, which they said had “undeniable charm.” One of the Man Ray’s most verbose critics was writer Willard Huntington Wright who had mixed things to say. “There is nothing final about any one of his pictures. He is searching for an ultimate personal expression,” he wrote, also titling his review “Art, Promise, and Failure.” Wright also called some of the works “childish,” compared several of the paintings to early Picasso, and concluded that “we may expect significant things from him later on.” Man Ray would soon abandon painting and start creating his first significant photographs in 1918. We can’t blame him.

Marcel Duchamp

After spying a chocolate grinding machine in the window of a confectioner’s shop in France, Duchamp painted his version of the odd contraption in a mechanical drawing style. The work influenced the artist’s readymade ideology. Two versions of Chocolate Grinder were exhibited at the Carroll Galleries in New York shortly after Duchamp emigrated to the States. Critics were unsure how to approach the works, writing, “It is not easy to take seriously as ‘Art’ two such mechanical evocations.”