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1. KANSAS CITY By Karen Wilkin, Dec. 2, 2017 7:00 a.m. ET
Through the Eyes of Picasso - Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo
Through April 8, 2018
In 1907, the 25-year-old Pablo Picasso visited Paris’s Ethnographic Museum of the Trocadéro (now the Museum of Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac)—“by chance,” he later said. As period photographs reveal, the museum was a jumble of large vitrines packed with masks, small sculptures, pottery, skeletons and mummified bodies, plus models of “indigenous” peoples, with large sculptures placed outside the glass cases—a miscellany, identified only by place of origin, from Africa, Oceania, and Meso-America. It wasn’t Picasso’s first encounter with work of this kind. A year earlier, at Gertrude Stein’s , Henri Matisse had showed him a small seated male figure from the Congo, recently acquired from a curio shop. The young Spaniard is said to have held the sculpture for the rest of the evening. But the visit to the Trocadéro seems to have focused his interest in “exotic” art, and he is supposed to have returned many times.
The rest, as they say, is art history. Much has been written about the powerful effect of non-Western art on Picasso. Now, the mesmerizing exhibition “Through the Eyes of Picasso” allows us to see many of the actual artifacts he encountered at the Trocadéro and in friends’ collections, as well as an ample selection of the more than 100 African, Oceanic and Meso-American works he collected and lived with, from 1908 on, together with paintings, drawings and sculptures he made in response. Seen earlier this year in Paris, the exhibition was organized by Yves Le Fur, director of the Department of Heritage and Collections at Quai Branly, in collaboration with the Picasso Museum, Paris. The associate curator was Julián Zugazagoitia, director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo.
In Kansas City, we begin with masks from the Trocadéro that Picasso might have seen. A selection ranging from Alaska and Greenland, to Ivory Coast and Nigeria, to New Guinea and Sri Lanka reminds us that it was not African art alone that interested the Spanish master. A brief film assembled from late 19th-century images of the museum documents how casually these potent objects were presented at the time. A well-known 1908 photograph of Picasso in his studio in Le Bateau Lavoir, flanked by sculptures from the Congo and New Caledonia—included in the show—continue the story, while a section titled “Disrupting Tradition” underscores the young Spaniard’s omnivorous appetite for “nontraditional” art with the hieratic, full-length, black-clad female figure and the pair of small heads by Henri Rousseau that he acquired in 1908, and a few of the elementally simple third- and fourth-century B.C. Iberian stone heads he first saw in an exhibition at the Louvre, in 1905.
The exhibition’s Picassos—ranging from 1907 studies for “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” with African mask-like faces, to a wide-eyed “Bust of a Man Writing” (1971), as fierce and curvilinear as the exhibition’s exorcism mask from Sri Lanka—make clear that the artist was fascinated, stimulated and perhaps liberated by the formal challenges non-Western, nontraditional works offered to the classical ideals he had rapidly absorbed during his academic art education in Spain.
Did the way the non-Western artists conjured up human bodies with confrontational poses, geometric forms, and reversals of concavity and convexity—for example—inspire Picasso’s innovations, or did it give him permission to pursue an already present desire for radical reinvention? We’ll never know, but the exhibition’s Picassos not only confirm his lifelong, daring experimentation, in general, but also, more specifically, confirm that his formal vocabulary over his entire long career was informed by his appreciation of (mainly) African and Oceanic art. In all the works by Picasso on view, whatever their date or medium, we see echoes of the staring eyes of New Guinea paintings and the frontal, bent-kneed stance and swelling limbs of African sculptures, along with expressive simplifications, sexual forthrightness, and an eagerness to turn rounded forms into angular ones and vice versa, all of which have antecedents in non-Western art.
Picasso, of course, knew nothing of the history or function of the masks and figures he admired within the cultures that produced them. He seems to have found them intense but threatening—perhaps a legacy of his traditional training—describing them as “weapons” conceived to counter malignant forces. An excellent section of “Through the Eyes of Picasso” contextualizes the exhibition’s “source” works with informative, capsule descriptions of their original, varied roles—communicating with ancestors, ensuring fertility, comic relief, and more. It’s plain, however, that Picasso found what he needed in these works, over almost seven decades. It’s impossible to imagine how his art might have evolved had he not wandered into the Trocadéro in 1907.
The Nelson-Atkins is the only American venue for “Through the Eyes of Picasso.” If you can’t get to Missouri, there’s a handsome, copiously illustrated catalog.
—Ms. Wilkin is an independent curator and critic.
Appeared in the December 4, 2017, print edition as 'Picasso Under the Influence.'