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Picasso in Black and White

There's good stuff here, but did we really need another round of the master's work?

Do we really need another Picasso show? Maybe, maybe not. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston thinks so and has shelled out untold amounts of money to bring "Picasso Black and White" from the Guggenheim to Houston. The organizational premise of "Picasso Black and White," which is curated by Carmen Giménez, the Guggenheim's Stephen and Nan Swid Curator of Twentieth-Century Art, is pretty self-explanatory. The exhibition explores the artist's work within the constrained colors of black and white. The exhibition includes loans from museums, public and private collections as well as from the Picasso family itself. The show includes a few never publicly viewed works, and dozens of the nearly 100 pieces in the exhibition had never been shown in the United States prior to the New York debut.

There are a lot of positives about the exhibition. Despite the fact that Pablo Picasso has to be one of the most exhibited artists of all time, it is still interesting to see a chronological array of the artist's work with all the color stripped away. Working in black and white and blended grays strips away the distraction as well as the crutch of color. Using black and white emphasizes the graphic, formal and often sculptural qualities of the work and it's a good way to see the artist at his most basic. "Picasso Black and White" is also a chance to see a few classics from your modern art history survey class up close and personal.

The iconic early Picasso painting Woman Ironing (La repasseuse) (1904) is a gaunt, angular depiction of toil. Slender and bony, the woman leans on a hefty pre-electric iron with both hands, putting the weight of her whole body into pressing out the wrinkles. The white peak of her shoulder and collarbone is sculptural against the dark background. Picasso's birth-of-cubism Demoiselles d'Avignon would be painted only three years later, and would be a radical departure from his own work and the work of his peers.

Pablo Picasso's The Milliner's Workshop stands out for its dense and beautiful composition.
Musée national d'art moderne / Centre de création industrielle, Centre Pompidou, Paris. © 2013 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Pablo Picasso's The Milliner's Workshop stands out for its dense and beautiful composition.

The colorful, fleshy Demoiselles is not in the show, but other early cubist paintings are. The most striking of the cubist works is the 1909 plaster sculpture Head of a Woman (Fernande) (Tête de femme [Fernande]). It is a dynamic sculpture of his mistress, Fernande Olivier; the planes and angles of her face, neck and hair explode from the surface in this wonderfully powerful piece.

Head of a Man (Tête d'homme), 1908, is thought to be a Picasso self-portrait. It's an ink drawing over an erased charcoal sketch of a woman. The head and shoulders are rendered in strong, spare lines, and the eyes are densely blacked out, as if censoring the soul of the sitter. The Milliner's Workshop (Atelier de la modiste) is a real standout. It is densely and beautifully composed, the figures intertwined and overlapping in flat tones and curving, abstracted shapes. His 1957 riff on fellow Spaniard Velázquez's 1656 Las Meninas is another inventive and successful work.

The show also has surprises, as least for me. Picasso remained in Paris during the Nazi occupation. Given that he painted his searing work Guernica in response to the German Luftwaffe's civilian slaughter test run during the Spanish Civil war, it was a risky decision. He continued to work during the occupation of Paris, and produced the 1943 Skull (Le crane [Tête de mort]). The weighty and roughly fashioned bronze skull is from a private collection and something I hadn't seen before. Somewhat larger than life, the eye sockets, nose and mouth are roughly gouged out. It somehow embodies the psychic weight of war. It is mute and brutal, its patina like something dug from the ashes of Auschwitz.

The Museum of Modern Art's The Charnel House (Le charnier), 1944-45, is included in the show. Picasso renders its writhing figures with a tangle of drawn line and painted form. It calls to mind Guernica, studies for which are included in the show along with a 1955 tapestry of Guernica that hangs in the Beck Building lobby. The painting is said to be based on an image of a family massacred during the Spanish Civil War but was painted as the horrific images of Nazi concentration camps made their way into public view. The haunting Charnel House is a reminder of the artist's humanity.

The show also includes some not-so-great paintings, works that matter only because they were made by a painter who made much better works. Arabesque Woman, (Femme aux Arabesques), 1931, may be interesting in the larger context of the artist's work, but in itself it's boring and facile. And there are other paintings that seem to have been drained of whatever power they had by Picasso's own widespread fame and popularity. There are a couple paintings that one can't look at without being reminded of 1950s upholstery fabric.

Picasso was a talented, innovative and groundbreaking artist with a voluminous and stylistically varied output, but I think that point has been made sufficiently in the past. It's interesting to look at his work in the context of black and white, but the idea of another show and another massive outlay of money to obsess over the minutiae of Picasso is wearying. So, too, was the press preview with all its talk of "muses," essentially the women Picasso exploited and abused. A rather grotesque picture of Dora Marr was described as, "She wasn't happy with Picasso that day," to knowledgeable chuckles. Quite. If the Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington biography of Picasso is to be believed, during their relationship, Picasso beat Maar unconscious and left her lying on the floor. (I didn't look to see if any of his images of Françoise Gilot depicted the scar from the cigarette he put out on her cheek.)

An earlier painting of Maar in the show lacks the grotesquerie of the latter. They are both good works, but Picasso's depictions of the women in his life changed as the relationships grew stale for him. He's quoted as saying, "It must be painful for a girl to see in a painting that she is on the way out."

I'm not going to argue that Picasso's work is not valid because he was an asshole. Think of all the cultural production you'd have to chuck to the curb if the decency of the creator was the criterion for success. But glossing over abusive behavior because someone is so talented is what creates monsters; it happens in art, in sports, in entertainment and a host of other fields.

I understand that curators may not want to delve into the personal dirty laundry of an artist with every show, but Picasso's misogyny was well known. "Victim" seems like it would be a more accurate term than "Muse" for many of Picasso's women. Picasso would dump Maar for Gilot during the occupation. The wall text under the heading "The War Year" talks about the arrest, deportation and death of Picasso's friends as well as his painting The Charnel House. It ends with "However, Picasso also found solace during these years. In 1943, he met the artist Françoise Gilot..." Do we really need to perpetuate the antiquated cliché of the great man inspired by the lesser, subservient woman, her only function as an object of inspiration/doormat? I would hope most of us would know better today. We can't change history, but we can certainly change how we talk about it.

As for the astronomical effort and expense associated with any Picasso show, is it really justified? How much longer will Picasso and his like disproportionately consume so much wall space and so many resources? Ultimately, I was glad to see most of the work in "Picasso Black and White." But I would have been gladder to see the scores of other exhibitions of lesser-known artists that could have been put on with the same amount of money.

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