The World in Black and White

Picasso exhibition at MFAH highlights monochromatic career

“Color weakens.” — Picasso

Pablo Picasso, THE CHARNEL HOUSE, Paris, 1945, oil and charcoal on canvas, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Mrs. Sam A. Lewisohn Bequest (by exchange), and Mrs. Marya Bernad
Fund in memory of her husband Dr. Bernard Bernard, and anonymous funds, 1971. © 2013 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

In 1904, young Pablo Picasso arrived in Paris to pursue his dream of becoming a great artist. It was not his first trip. He briefly stayed there in 1900 and then in 1901-1902, but things did not work out. The result was an embarrassing return to Spain, with the train ticket paid by his parents.

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.

Two years later, undaunted, 22-year old Pablo was in Paris again. He found lodgings at Bateau-Lavoir, a run-down tenement building in Montmartre. Named for its resemblance to a laundry barge, the place was popular among penniless artists because of its low rent. Who cared that there was no light, gas or electric, no running water and no heat? In winter, the coffee left at the bottom of the cup at night turned into ice by the morning. In summer, the little apartment turned into an inferno compelling Pablo to paint naked.

Not withstanding his young age, Picasso already had an original vision of the world. His world was monochromatic. His early works were done in blue palette. These works are typically interpreted as an expression of the young artist’s angst, caused by the harsh realities of his life and especially by the suicide of his friend, Carlos Casagemas. However, years passed and the circumstances of Picasso’s life changed, yet he continued to paint monochromatic compositions. The “Blue Period” was succeeded by the “Rose Period” and then he found his true calling — black and white painting, which he pursued until the end of his life.

The exhibition “Picasso Black and White,” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, showcases the artist’s work from public and private collections in the United States and Europe. The sheer scale of this presentation is astounding: nearly 100 works, created between 1904 and 1970. No less impressive is the diversity of formats: sketches and drawings are shown side-by-side with large-scale paintings, while sculptures range from life-size heads to monumental figures. Monumental in size, also, is the tapestry of the famous painting “Guernica,”1 which welcomes visitors to the exhibition. Commissioned by Picasso from French weavers at the suggestion of Nelson Rockefeller in 1955, this exquisite work has been on view for more than two decades at the United Nations Building in New York.

Pablo Picasso, THE MAIDS OF HONOR (LAS MENINAS, AFTER VELÁZQUEZ), LA CALIFORNIE, AUGUST 17, 1957, oil on canvas, Museu Picasso, Barcelona, gift of the artist, 1968. © 2013 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The exhibition provides a unique opportunity to trace Picasso’s everlasting passion for black and white compositions from its beginning to the last years of his life. One of the earliest works of this kind, “Head of a Man” (1908), is an ink and charcoal drawing of a figure with black irregular shapes covering the areas from the eyebrows to the chin. This rarely seen work, which may be Picasso’s self-portrait, provides an insight into the artist’s creative process. It suggests that the initial impulse for the black and white palette might have come from the artist’s fascination with African sculpture. Picasso was already experimenting with African-art-inspired shapes and planes, which eventually led him to the creation of Cubism. As he searched for ways of translating sculpture into the language of two-dimensional art, he started using black and white to convey negative and positive shapes.

During the following two decades, Picasso extensively used black and white palette, with occasional inclusion of ochre shades, for Cubist compositions. In the 1920s, he went through the phase of Neoclassical painting, which coincided with his marriage to Russian dancer Olga Khokhlova. It is tempting to assume that Olga’s classical beauty was responsible for Picasso’s a short-lived romance with classical art. As his love for Olga started to fade, the artist turned his attention to Cubism again. He also found a new muse: 17-year-old Marie-Thérèse Walter.

Pablo Picasso THE MILLINER’S WORKSHOP, RUE LA BOÉTE, PARIS, January 1926, oil on canvas, Musée national d’art modern / Centre de creation industrielle, Centre Pompidou, Paris. © 2013 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The exhibition features many intimate portraits of Marie-Thérèse. Rendered in simplified shapes and delicate lines, they project an image of a demure, fragile woman. They also attest to Picasso’s incessant exploration of the expressive potential of Cubist shapes and black and white palette. Some portraits are created with one undulating line which traces the face and the body, resulting in a peaceful and serene image. In other cases, the figure is composed of bold, juxtaposing forms which create a sense of movement and three-dimensionality.

Picasso’s first large-scale black and white painting is “The Milliner’s Workshop” (1926). The actual workshop in the painting was located on the same street as Picasso’s apartment. The artist could see the activity inside the shop through the open door every time he passed by. In the painting, the door is also open, but it is no more than a prop.

Viewers are offered a frontal view of the place, as if they were in the shop or looking at it through a large, floor-to-ceiling window.

Viewers may have different opinions on what the interior looks like or what is going on in the shop. However, everyone probably would agree with one thing: there is a frenzy of activity. The space is populated with black, gray and white shapes which seem to intermittently come forward and recede, creating a sense of movement. The impression is akin to the feeling one may experience by walking into a somber environment from a sunlit street. While the eyes are still adjusting to the dim light, the objects’ shapes keep shifting and transforming before everything comes into focus.

Works from the 1930s demonstrate how long Picasso was developing his signature style and iconography which came to a full realization in “Guernica,” painted at the commission of the Spanish Republican government in exile for the 1937 International Exposition in Paris. The exhibition at MFAH features studies for this monumental painting, as well as a number of works painted before “Guernica” was conceived. In particular, the image of a mother crying out in despair over the dead child appears in earlier works, such as a mythological scene from 1934, as well as in the works painted as a postscript to “Guernica.” Similarly, the bull, the horse and the lamp seem to be recurrent themes in Picasso’s work around the same time.

Pablo Picasso, MOTHER WITH DEAD CHILD II, POSTSCRIPT TO GUERNICA, Paris, September 26 (?), 1937, oil on canvas, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid. © 2013 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Picasso turned to the powerful iconography of “Guernica” once again to express the sense of devastation, anguish and rage over the mass murder and genocide perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II. “The Charnel House” (1945) is a large-scale painting featuring a blood-curdling scene of a family murdered in their home. As our eyes follow the intricate pattern of black, gray and white shapes, we start to discern the mangled bodies and realize the tragedy that has just happened. Maybe the most poignant image is that of the mother and child, both dead. She is still covering the baby with her body, and the blood is pouring out of her wounded breast into his mouth, as a gruesome twist on the universal symbol of motherhood.

As the time went on, the aging artist started thinking of his legacy, which inevitably led him to comparing himself to artists of the past, in particular, to such colossal figures in Spanish art as Goya and Velázquez. “Las Meninas, after Velázquez” (1957) is a playful, yet thoughtful, “conversation” between Picasso and his famous predecessor. Picasso’s tribute is slightly smaller in size (76 x 100 in.) than Velázquez’s original (125.2 x 108.7 in.), however, there is nothing humble or obsequious in the manner with which Picasso presents his interpretation of the epic painting.

While preserving the composition of Velázquez’s work, Picasso completely reconfigures the characters according to the Cubist vocabulary. They become geometricized, collage-like cutouts; some look like sinister harpies, some appear to be amiable. The friendliest of them all is Picasso’s dog, a Dachsund by the name of Lump, that replaced the well-groomed Spanish mastiff in the original painting. Unlike typical Cubist compositions, this painting has depth which is implied by the arrangement of gradually diminishing shapes with a silhouette of a man standing in a white doorway as a vanishing point.

In Picasso’s version of the painting, it is Velázquez, not Infanta Margaret Theresa, that is the major figure. Standing by the easel with the tools of his trade, the artist looks like a giant in the company of the Pygmies. He also seems too big for this picture — his head is almost pushing through the upper edge of the canvas. Picasso’s statement about the place of the artist in history is unmistakable and refers as much to himself as to Velázquez.

The latest works in the exhibition attest to Picasso’s undiminished fascination with black and white painting. Most of them are portraits of the last woman in his life, his second wife Jacqueline. Picasso’s style oscillates between straightforward Cubism, exemplified in “Seated Woman (Jacqueline )” (1962) and a more representational manner which incorporates elements of Cubism, as demonstrated in “The Kiss” (1969). These paintings, which celebrate love and art, serve a powerful finale to Picasso’s long life.

The exhibition “Picasso Black and White” is on view through May 27. This is the first major exhibition to focus on the artist’s lifelong exploration of a black and white palette.

The exhibition has been organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, in the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities, and is sponsored by Bank of America.

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1 “Guernica” (1937) is in the collection of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.

2 The”Guernica” tapestry was displayed at the UN Building from 1985 to 2009; it was moved to London in advance of extensive renovations at UN Headquarters; as of 2012, it is on temporary loan to the San Antonio Museum of Art in San Antonio.

ISSUE Magazine
Story by Elena Ivanova