Throughout his lengthy career, Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) experimented with wildly divergent styles, techniques, subject matter, and mediums. But over the decades, he would continually return to creating works in the most simple - and often striking - hues of black and white.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston will showcase nearly 100 of Picasso's paintings, sculptures, and drawings on paper in the upcoming exhibit Picasso in Black and White. The works - which cover the years 1904 through 1970 - come to Houston after the exhibit's premiere at the Guggenheim in New York, largely through the efforts and friendship of MFAH Director Gary Tinterow and the exhibit's curator, Carmen Giménez.
"I've known Carmen since 1984, and we've discussed this project many times over the last decade," Tinterow - who was appointed MFAH director last year - says. "I immediately asked if we could be the second and only other venue for the exhibit, and now we have it. It is a pathbreaking and breathtaking show."
His own favorite piece The Maids of Honor (Las Meninas), one of a series of paintings in which Picasso reinterpreted and reimagined the famous work by 17th century artist Diego Velázquez's Las Meninas.
"There, Picasso inscribes himself in the magnificent tradition of Spanish panting, and demonstrates his extraordinary graphic facility, as well as his terrific sense of humor," he says.
In addition, a number of pieces on loan from other museums and galleries will be exclusive to Houston, as well as works from the MFAH's own Picasso holdings.
For Giménez, the limited palette of black and white (and gray) brings the talent of Picasso bursting forth rather than show any hint of subdued effort. "I think within the visual impact of black and white, and gray, you see the essence of Picasso. You see the line," she offers. "Because it doesn't make any difference between drawing, painting, and sculpture. His obsession is inventing, and he invents the line."
And while she feels that Picasso is a great colorist, some of his greatest works lean toward the monochromatic, even during the so-called "Blue" and "Rose" periods. "Color art is not essential," she adds. "It is not the essence of his interest."
One of Picasso's recurring interests in work and life, of course, was sexuality and the naked female form, a theme not just in the works for Picasso Black and White, though they are well represented here.
"Picasso was very sexual all the time. He did a bronze [bust] of a lover in 1931 and her nose is very big, and it is clearly a sexual symbol," Giménez says. "And at the end of his life, he frees himself. He was not scared anymore of embracing the women he had loved and painting them like Jacqueline, his last wife. He was free, very free."
Still she thinks that the popular conception of Picasso as a womanizer and philanderer - as it affects opinions of him and his art - is overblown and unwarranted.
"Many people are unhappy about his many wives and such a complicated sexual life, but the judging is ridiculous," she offers strongly. "Picasso was a free spirit and he did what he liked. You can see it in his art when he went from Cubist to Neo-Classicism and back to Cubism. Anything negative about his life is irrelevant to how we judge his work. He lived his life from beginning to end with strong passion."
Picasso Black and White opens February 24 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet. 73-639-7300 or www.mfah.org
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