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Pablo Picasso, The Kiss, 1969, oil on canvas, Private Collection, New York. © 2013 Estate of PabloPicasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Pablo Picasso, The Kiss (1969), oil on canvas, private collection, New York. © 2013 Estate of Pablo
Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Picasso Black and White has all the ingredients of a blockbuster exhibition. The featured artworks are historically significant examples from the best known periods of the artist’s work installed chronologically. It’s a broad overview of Picasso’s 75-year career, moving sequentially through the blue period, cubism, neo-classicism, studies for Guernica, takes on the Spanish masters and finally a gallery of works made when the artist was in his 80s and 90s. The artworks range in scale from showstoppers such as the bronze Woman with a Vase (1933) and large canvas The Charnel House (1944-1945), to small cubist studies in graphite on paper.

The Charnel House, Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973)  Paris, 1944-45. Oil and charcoal on canvas, 6' 6 5/8" x 8' 2 1/2" (199.8 x 250.1 cm). Mrs. Sam A. Lewisohn Bequest (by exchange), and Mrs. Marya Bernard Fund in memory of her husband Dr. Bernard Bernard, and anonymous funds. © 2013 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Charnel House (Paris, 1944-45), Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973), oil and charcoal on canvas, 6 feet 6 5/8 inches x 8 feet 2 1/2 inches (199.8 x 250.1 centimeters). Mrs. Sam A. Lewisohn Bequest (by exchange) and Mrs. Marya Bernard Fund in memory of her husband Dr. Bernard Bernard and anonymous funds. © 2013 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The reason why Picasso worked in black and white throughout his life and in so many formats is left as an open question. The curator Carmen Giménez offers a range of possibilities in her catalogue essay, from the artist’s proclivity for working at night to a connection to his spirit through shadows. Two of Picasso’s most important contributions to art history—analytical cubism and Guernica—were mostly monochromatic, suggesting that the artist worked in reduced palettes when he had something serious to say. Of these two breakthroughs, the exhibition is weighted more toward Guernica, which Giménez admits has personal significance to her as her father was a Spanish Republican whose sympathies therefore lay with Picasso’s grand painting.

Pablo Picasso Standing woman, 1927, Femme en pied Oil on canvas, 133x105 cm Marina Picasso  Collection (Inv. 12471) Courtesy Jan Krugier Gallery, New York

Pablo Picasso
Standing Woman (Femme en pied) (1927), oil on canvas, 133 x 105 centimeters. Marina Picasso Collection (Inv. 12471), courtesy Jan Krugier Gallery, New York

Giménez’s many years of curating Picasso exhibitions and working with his descendants allowed her to secure loans from Picasso family members that have rarely appeared in museums. One third of the exhibition comes from the artist’s estate, and many of the works are revelations. I especially enjoyed the second gallery, labeled “surrealism,” that features a series of portraits of women from 1927/28, presumably inspired by the artist’s lover Marie-Thérèse Walter. In works such as Standing Woman (1927), her elongated limbs are contorted into grotesque sorts of arabesques in multiple configurations that rise with lightness, yet sink to the ground in flat, crippled arms and feet. Shown in stark black outline on white canvas, the slits and holes of her eyes, mouth and vagina are mixed up in a frightening distortion. Picasso discerns an iconic power in the strange shapes that make Walter like the cycladic goddesses featured in the MFAH’s green-walled ancient art galleries adjacent to the exit of the exhibition.

Pablo Picasso, The Milliner’s Workshop (Atelier de la modiste), Rue La Boétie, Paris, January 1926. Oil on canvas, 172 x 256 cm. Musée national d’art moderne/Centre de création industrielle, Centre Pompidou, Paris, Gift of the artist, 1947. © 2012 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: © CNAC/MNAM/Dist. Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, NY

Pablo Picasso, The Milliner’s Workshop (Atelier de la modiste) (Rue La Boétie, Paris, January 1926), oil on canvas, 172 x 256 centimeters. Musée national d’art moderne/Centre de création industrielle, Centre Pompidou, Paris, gift of the artist, 1947. © 2012 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: © CNAC/MNAM/Dist. Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, NY

Picasso’s confident use of bold lines to define masses that have a strong weight, yet seem to dance and almost float in space comes through particularly strongly in this exhibition. In Picasso’s hands, the color black marks edges, voids and heavy forms as in The Milliner’s Workshop (1926); and white can alternately be vacant, claustrophobic, ethereal and grounded, an ambiguity used to stunning effect in Woman in White (1923). The sculptures sprinkled throughout the galleries show in three-dimensional space what Picasso is also able to achieve on the surface of paper, canvas, or wood. A bronze that appears toward the end of the exhibition stands out—a skull from 1943. Its lumpy mass is almost formless and relic-like, as if the artist dug it from a grave or archaeological site. Yet the brutally carved round holes for eyes appear to sink to infinity even as they bore into whomever meets their gaze. It may give me nightmares for days to come.

Pablo Picasso, Skull (Le crâne [Tête de mort]), Grands-Augustins, Paris, 1943. Bronze, 25 x 21 x 33 cm. One of two unnumbered proofs. Private collection. © 2012 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Maurice Aeschimann

Pablo Picasso, Skull (Le crâne [Tête de mort]) (Grands-Augustins, Paris, 1943), bronze, 25 x 21 x 33 centimeters. One of two unnumbered proofs. Private collection. © 2012 Estate of Pablo Picasso /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Maurice Aeschimann

The austere effect of gallery after gallery of works in ranges of grey are reason enough to show the artworks together. But as enjoyable as the visual unity of the exhibition is, it does not have a sense of unfolding discoveries. The organization of the galleries relies too heavily on a historical periodization of Picasso, rather than grouping works in unexpected and surprising ways. As Picasso himself said in a 1956 interview, “I have a horror of people who speak about the beautiful. What is the beautiful? One must speak of problems in painting! Paintings are but research and experiment. I never do a painting as a work of art. All of them are researches.” The works in the MFAH are evidence of Picasso’s investigations, but the exhibition itself is remarkably free of problems.

There have been a number of exhibitions over the last five years that have looked at “masters” of twentieth century art through the lens of color—for example Jasper Johns: Gray, Color Chart: Reinventing Color 1950 to Today and locally James Drake: Red Drawings and White Cutouts. The subjects of these chromatic-based studies are mostly white men whose position in the pantheon is all but assured. I wonder whether paring their work down to issues of tint and gradation might be a clever way to push any criticality out of consciousness? At least in this case, I am not convinced that focusing on artworks where Picasso did not use color offers a new perspective on his work.

Pablo Picasso, Marie-Thérèse, Face and Profile, Paris, 1931, oil and charcoal on canvas, PrivateCollection. © 2013 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Pablo Picasso, Marie-Thérèse, Face and Profile (Paris, 1931), oil and charcoal on canvas, private
collection. © 2013 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Picasso Black and White is on display at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through May 27.
Entry will require a ticket. Admission details and on-sale date for tickets are on the exhibition website.

Rachel Hooper is pursuing a doctorate in art history at Rice University, where she is a graduate student fellow with the Humanities Research Center. She is also a participant in the 2012 Art Writing Workshop organized by the International Art Critics Association/USA Section (AICA/USA) and the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program, for which her mentor is Raphael Rubinstein.

also by Rachel Hooper
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7 Responses

  1. Rachel Hooper

    Yes, it looks like Gary Tinterow agrees with his former boss (and former MFAH director) Philippe de Montebello, who famously said “On the matter of barriers, the people who squawk most about the cost of a museum pay huge amounts of money to go to rock concerts, sports events, all of which are very expensive. I don’t buy that “barrier” thing. Philosophically, what is it about a work of art that makes it mandatory that it should be available for nothing, whereas the C Sharp Minor Quartet Opus 131 of Beethoven should be paid for, that Aida should be paid for, that Ibsen should be paid for? What is [it] about art that it shouldn’t be paid for?”

  2. Kyle Sweeney

    I wonder what my former mentor, Maxwell Anderson, would say about that? He axed general admission in Indianapolis and has now done the same in Dallas. He also made memberships free in Dallas. I think it’s absurd to compare paying to go to a ball game or concert with a visit to a museum.

  3. Rachel Hooper

    I grew up near the Cincinnati Art Museum, where Richard and Lois Rosenthal created an endowment to make admission free. I wish some of our generous philanthropists in Houston would step up to do the same.

  4. Admission is a barrier. However, it costs real money to bring an exhibition of this import to Houston. Insurance; installation; etc. etc. = higher admission costs. It’s not Gary Tintertow’s fault – it’s Economics 101.

  5. Rachel Hooper

    Susan, it is true that a Picasso exhibition costs a great deal to host. The insurance alone generally requires an indemnity from the federal government. However, I believe that Damon, Kyle, and I are questioning WHO should bear those costs. The economics of a non-profit are different from other types of businesses with a strict ratio between fee and cost. In the case of a special exhibition such as this, should visitors, especially members, be asked to contribute? Patrons, museum rentals, etc. can also offset costs.

  6. My issue isn’t this show it is that they ALWAYS have one. If this wasn’t one of TWO up now that charge extra after two solid years of having at least one exhibition up that charges extra.
    If it was once and a while and for a really great show it would be another story.
    This exhibition is nice enough, Portrait of Spain is pretty sleepy – but clearly important. The best thing there is the Burri & Tapies from the collection downstairs.
    They could do a lot of very good shows just from or based on their own collection. If they can’t afford these programs, there is no reason to constantly do them.

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