When I first arrived in Kansas City in 2010 to be the new Menefee D. and Mary Louise Blackwell Director & CEO at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, I wanted to understand the community and the history of the museum. I asked both staff and community members what they most wanted to see, and Picasso came up again and again. Now came the hard part — finding the right Picasso exhibition for Kansas City. Serendipity took over. Musée du Quai Branly in Paris was planning an exhibition of Picasso and non- European, especially African and Oceanic, art. This seemed like an exciting possibility: bringing Picasso to Kansas City, while celebrating the Nelson-Atkins extraordinary collections of African art.
With over 60 works in all media by Picasso, Through the Eyes of Picasso explores the artist’s lifelong fascination with the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. The exhibition will unite Picasso’s paintings and sculpture with art that stimulated his own creative exploration. In addition to impressive sculptures, paintings and masks, for the first time, many African objects owned by Picasso will be displayed in the United States.
Interest in non-European cultures was in the air in the early 20th century. European artists and writers were intrigued and fascinated by the people and art from Africa and Oceania. The art Picasso and his fellow artists saw had been collected without regard to the original context, meaning or traditions. To these Europeans it was novel and unfamiliar. More recently, curators and scholars have delved into exposing the motivations, the meaning and the traditions to understand these works more fully. But this was not the case in the early 1900s. Through the Eyes of Picasso explores both what fascinated Picasso but also brings to light the original significance of these works of art from Africa, Oceania and the Americas.
One of Picasso’s first encounters with African art was in 1906, when his friend the artist Henri Matisse showed him an Nkisi vili sculpture from the Republic of the Congo. Picasso could not put it down, so fascinated was he by its expression, form and abstraction. He felt moved by the work to explore more. The following year he visited the collections at the Musée d’ Ethnographie du Trocadéro (which are now part of the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris), where works mainly from the African French colonial territories were on view. There, all of his senses were overwhelmed by what he experienced. This visit and his fascination with non-European art radically changed his creative practice from this time until his final works. It also encouraged him to start collecting non-European art — a passion he held for his whole life. The works were visual stimuli for his own creativity.
Through the Eyes of Picasso brings examples of African and Oceanic sculptures and masks from the Trocadéro and Picasso’s break from European realistic depictions of the figure and space. The exhibition explores the development of Picasso’s iconic work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon from 1907, before turning to works from the 1920s and 1930s, when line and volume, so evident in African and Oceanic works, became a source of inspiration. Many works of African art demonstrate the importance of metamorphosis, or transformation. Masks and sculptures display hybrid creatures of spirits of divination figures. Picasso too was interested in animal/human mixtures such as satyrs, fauns, and, even the ancient Minoan man/bull, the Minotaur. He himself even identified with these hybrids, especially in his erotic works. The final section of the exhibition transports us to Picasso’s last studios in southern France. Seemingly inexhaustible, Picasso continued to work on new ideas surrounded by his beloved collections of African art.
The exhibition will introduce audiences familiar with Picasso to the extraordinary variety and beauty of art from Africa, Oceania and the Americas. For those who are already attuned to the magnificent works of art, I hope that they will appreciate one artist’s investigation and appreciation of form, line and abstraction.
The exhibition was conceived by Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in partnership with Musée national Picasso-Paris and adapted by The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and The Montreal Museum of Fine Art/Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal.
–Julián Zugazagoitia, CEO / Director