A Fresh Look at Picasso and the Art That Inspired Him

“Through the Eyes of Picasso” Reconsiders the Artist’s Relationship with African Art

It’s finally happened — a blockbuster Picasso show at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Organized by the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, “The Eyes of Picasso” is a rare treat, pairing 60 works by Picasso with sublime examples of the African art that inspired him. Viewed with fresh eyes, that relationship is the show’s driving theme.

“If you think you know Picasso there are going to be new discoveries,” said Nelson-Atkins CEO and director Julián Zugazagoitia, who adapted the show, drawn largely from the collections of the the Musée du Quai Branly, the Musee National Picasso-Paris, and Picasso family members, for an American audience. “The exhibit establishes a new way to look at his work.”

“(Picasso) discovered Western art was limiting him,” Zugazagoitia added as we stood at the entrance to the show in front of the exhibit’s signature graphic, a split face, pairing Picasso’s 1906 painting of a young man’s face and an African mask from Ivory Coast. “It no longer gave him the spontaneity he wished to achieve, and he began to look elsewhere. It was a process of choosing art outside the canon of the bourgeois status quo.”

That looking “elsewhere” started in 1906 with Picasso’s purchase of an African mask in a thrift shop along the Rue des Rennes in Paris. In the spring of 1907 he visited the city’s Ethnographic Museum of the Trocadero in Paris (now housed in the Musée du Quai Branly). The exhibit’s first gallery mimics the dark walls and cramped spaces of the Trocadero and features masks similar to those Picasso encountered there.

The display features works from Africa, Oceania, Greenland and the Americas, including a striking, two-nosed Inuit mask from Greenland of which Zugazagoitia observed, “This is Picasso before Picasso.”

Another standout is an Inuit finger mask from Alaska, adorned with white strand-like feathers radiating outwards from a skull. A few feet away, two magnificent African Kifebwe masks have banded gestural striations and protruding features that perfectly anticipate Picasso’s use of expressive planes and irregular proportions. One of them was lent by Donald and Adele Hall, and more than 20 works of African and Oceanic art in the exhibit were part of Picasso’s personal collection.

“I understood something very important was happening to me,” Picasso said to writer Andre Malraux. “The masks weren’t like other kinds of sculpture. They were magical things.”

His breakthrough was to recognize the masks as important works of art and to employ them as vital points of departure for his artistic evolution. Over the years Picasso would reminisce about his Trocadero experience, sometimes rhapsodizing or romanticizing, but always reliving that moment of shock as he came to grips with an experience so complete and rich that it remained at his aesthetic core throughout his lifetime. Once he found it he never let it go.

As we continued our tour, I asked Zugazagoitia about his role in the exhibit. “It took us four years to put this together working with my staff and the Quai Branly in Paris,” he said. “The Branly saw the show in a different manner than I did. It fell into my lap to reconstruct a vision of the effect the ‘art of the world’ had on (Picasso). The title ‘curator’ didn’t fit as I worked to reinterpret and tailor the exhibit for the Nelson-Atkins, and so I came up with the term ‘adapter.’”

One of the exhibit’s primary accomplishments is to counter the “primitivist” historical interpretation of non-Western art with a thoughtful investigation of the sophisticated and varied roles masks and sculptures played in Africa, North and South America and the Oceanic region.

Picasso experienced this work from the colonialist point of view of the early 20th century. Zugazagoitia’s curatorial intervention in the Branly version emphasizes the sophistication and complexity of artists seen at the time as Other. A riveting wall panel, “The Role of a Mask — What Picasso Didn’t Know,” contrasts Picasso’s interpretation of the masks as creations of superstitious primitives, with the varied social and religious roles these masks played within cultures of great sophistication. The Kifebwe masks, for instance, gave the wearer police authority, while the Inuit mask from Greenland is a helping spirit and was designed to make people laugh. Other masks were employed in dances and rituals.

The Road to Modernism

Shortly after his visit to the Trocadero, Picasso began to break with Western verisimilitude, as seen in the exquisite 1906/07 “Female Bust (Study for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon).” Shaped like a tear drop, her head is set slightly off center. Painted lines run down the sides of her nose; her almond shaped eyes are twice the size of her mouth. Every feature departs from Western conventions of realism. The distortions echo the features of a Dan tribal mask from Ivory Coast displayed in the same gallery.

Picasso’s incorporation of the vocabulary of African art continues in one of his finest domestic portraits, “Mother and Son,” in which a seated young woman peers over the head of a little boy perched on her lap. The two bodies are rendered as semi-circles and painted in umber, red and blue. Their simplicity underscores Picasso’s new-found ability to pare to essentials: less is more.

Picasso made more than 800 sketches and small paintings — the exhibit features several of them — leading up to his 1907 masterpiece “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” “‘Demoiselles’ is the crystallization of establishing himself as a great artist,” Zugazagoitia said, “and it opens a doorway onto cubism.”

Represented in this exhibition by a 4-by-4-foot reproduction (approximately half the size of the original), “Demoiselles” is a summary of Picasso’s influences to date, from the Cezanne-esque bowl of fruit at the bottom of the canvas to the African mask-like faces of the two nudes on the far right of the composition.

It’s a painting that shouldn’t “work.” The picture plane tilts downward, the composition incorporates multiple perspectives and the figures are awkwardly disarrayed. There’s plenty here to formally critique. But it is a masterpiece of the forever new and has spawned enough academic dissertations, books and catalogs to fill a small library. Regarded as one of the greatest paintings of the 20th century, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” is a linchpin of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. Little wonder MoMA will not lend it.

The Line King

A key section of the exhibit is devoted to Picasso’s use of line, inspired by African and Oceanic masks and sculptures, such as a striking elongated female figure from Gabon that looks as if the artist has stretched her torso like a rubber band. Viewed in silhouette she is a wispy straight line.

As early as the Trocadero era, Picasso employed bold, crosshatched and diagonal lines in his paintings to emphasize shadow. A decade later, line asserts a central role.

In his portraits of Olga Khokhlova, the Russian ballerina he married in 1918, Picasso defined her with a minimum of sharp gestural strokes of black; color is largely relegated to the background.
“His pronounced use of line during the time he was married to Olga Khokhlova demonstrates he was rebelling against being stylistically cornered,” Zugazagoitia observed. “These years mark the end of his cubist phase.”

In Europe in the teens and ’20s and in the U.S. in the 1930s, artists began to pick up on Picasso’s use of line, paving the way for a mid-century revolution in painting. One could argue that Jackson Pollock’s thrown and dripped lines, Willem de Kooning’s slashed isolated brushstrokes and Franz Kline’s architectural spans of black oil and enamel paint all began with Picasso’s encounter with decorated African masks and the line-based paintings they inspired. Before the Olga portraits, line was confined to drawing and color was painting. Incrementally, line becomes king. Line becomes modernity.

It seems no aspect of Picasso’s art was untouched by his exposure to African and Oceanic works. The section devoted to line is followed by an exploration of how African art also influenced Picasso’s handling of space and volume in his sculptures.

Women, Sex and Death

On a Sunday afternoon early in the exhibit’s run, two dozen people gathered midway through the exhibit, avidly reading and looking. The attraction was an illustrated timeline of Picasso’s work and personal history, including his increasingly vast studios and succession of wives and lovers. An extended affair with Fernande Oliver, with whom he shared a dingy studio in the Bateau-Lavoir, preceded his marriage to Olga and their move to ritzier digs as Picasso’s paintings began to sell.

While still married to Olga, Picasso began an affair with 17-year-old Marie-Thérèse Walter, followed by long-term relationships with Dora Maar and Francoise Gilot. The timeline culminates with a photo of the sprawling Mediterranean-style farm mansion on the French Riviera that Picasso shared with his second wife, Jacqueline Roque.

Picasso’s women were his muse and subject; he glorified their beauty while picking away at their shortcomings. His feelings toward each are clear from his paintings. Marriage to Olga is his prison, an incarceration in the bourgeois lifestyle she wanted for them. In his portrait of her, “Nude in an Armchair” (1927), vertical and horizontal lines give a claustrophobic feeling to this setting, suggesting entrapment rather than domestic tranquility. A highlight of the exhibit is the sensual masterpiece, “Large Still Life on a Table” (1931), in which the artist celebrates his secret relationship with Marie-Thérèse by disguising her as a still life of fruit and flowers.

Dora Maar came in for her share of scorn. When she met Picasso, Maar was a successful photographer known for her surrealistic montages. That changed when he convinced her to take up painting and work in a cubist style. Maar is depicted as crying in many of her portraits by him. When asked about her after the end of their affair Picasso said all he remembered were her tears.

Wall labels and section panels add immeasurably to the viewer’s experience of this show, orienting them to important themes and ideas. The “Eros and Thanatos” section, filled with phallic African sculptures and Picasso’s sexually charged responses to them, is introduced by a key caveat: “Like many Europeans at the time, Picasso incorrectly saw these as erotic objects.”

In fact, the label explains, “these works were part of different cultural traditions related to the cycle of life and death (and) . . . were not intended to be pornographic or sexual.” Here and elsewhere, Picasso’s “misreadings” do not detract from the greatness of his paintings. For decades, however, they did detract from an accurate understanding of African cultures.

Following a “Metamorphosis” section of human and animal hybrids by Picasso and the artists who inspired him, the exhibit concludes with a look at Picasso’s final years. Intimate photographs by David Douglas Duncan, a KC native and decades-long friend of the artist, capture a wizened Picasso with Jacqueline Roque surrounded by decades of his paintings and one of the largest collections of African art in private hands.

In his paintings from this period, Picasso no longer portrays himself as the ogre and women as sexual doormats. In “The Kiss” (1969), a bald and bearded Picasso embraces Jacqueline, their faces melding together in an arabesque of lips and chins. Jacqueline is a part of him, just as the conventions of African art have thoroughly permeated his aesthetic.

The exhibit ends with Picasso’s painting of an empty canvas surrounded by studio clutter in the middle of the room, made in 1956 when he was 75. It seems to promise: “to be continued.” Zugazagoitia, who named the work as a personal favorite, had this interpretation: “He is at peace with himself knowing he has a secure place in art history. Delacroix, Matisse, Ingres, El Greco — he is their equal.”

“Through the Eyes of Picasso” continues at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St., through April 8. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday. Tickets (which include admission to the special exhibition, “Dreams of the Kings: A Jade Suit for Eternity”), cost $18 for adults, $16 for seniors and $10 for students. Free for members and children 12 and younger. For tickets and more information, 816.751.1278 or www.nelson-atkins.org.

James Brinsfield

James Brinsfield Is an artist who is represented by Joseph Nease Gallery. He is a former contributor to “Downbeat” magazine and was a lecturer in the painting department at the Kansas City Art Institute for 18 years.

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