“Through the Eyes of Picasso” and colonialism

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Upon entering “Through the Eyes of Picasso,” the new featured exhibition at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, I found myself in a narrow hallway with tribal masks from indigenous groups from places ranging from New Zealand to Mexico—not at all what I expected from an exhibition showcasing Picasso.

From there, the exhibition travels loosely through Picasso’s life, from his first encounter—a word which in this context warrants further analysis—with indigenous art and artifacts at the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro, which is now the Musée du quai Branly, to his later years in his Cannes studio.

The exhibit showcases numerous pieces of tribal art from Picasso’s own collection, as well as pieces from the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, a Paris museum dedicated to non-European art. The Musee du quai Branly, with the Picasso museum in Paris, conceived of this exhibition. The exhibition is traveling from Paris to Kansas City and then to Montreal, where it will be shown at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal.

Broadly, the exhibition explores Picasso’s relationship with global art and artifacts and the profound effect said works had on Picasso’s own art. In this way, the exhibition is fascinating, There were moments when, if a case contained four masks, I had trouble ascertaining which was a Picasso creation and which was a tribal artifact.

The expanse of the exhibition is also incredible. It contains artifacts from every continent save Asia and Antarctica. The information provided for many of the rarer artifacts clearly required assiduous research, and that deserves appreciation.

Where the exhibition fell short, however, is in its lukewarm indictment of Picasso and other European art collectors for their participation in colonialism, its somewhat jumbled layout despite the attempt at a loose chronology and, although impressive, the number of extraneous pieces, which added to the overall disordered feel of the exhibit.

The exhibition is expansive, featuring 170 works of art. Although the breadth of Picasso’s artistry is shown through the various media presented—paintings and sculptures of various materials and of all shapes and sizes—it ultimately felt crowded. This can partly be attributed to the number of people roaming the gallery. A more influential factor in this feeling came from the cribbed nature of the space, which was most noticeable near the entrance.

The actual spacing of the works contributed to the feeling of confinement as well. It’s true that the exhibition is bound to be more crowded at this moment in its run. But this popularity should have been considered when conceiving the layout for the room.

Some of the pieces included in the exhibition felt unnecessary. I appreciated the comparison between Picasso’s work and the tribal art, but the number of pieces could have been narrowed down to those which highlighted this relationship most clearly, that would have been helpful for the viewer.

Most of my discontent with this exhibition was in the lack of substantive discussion regarding colonialism and art. Near the beginning of the exhibition, a placard did note that “many of the global works on view were taken or purchased in territories colonized by European nations” and that “their makers or contexts were rarely documented.”

Although this is an integral statement to make, the exhibition fell short in that this was the only explicit statement regarding colonialism. It could have been enhanced by a discussion of power and appropriation. Clearly Picasso appropriated styles and forms of indigenous and global art, but the exhibit simply notes his fascination with this art or how it influenced him. These words express merely appreciation, when in reality Picasso took and used forms and styles from this work in his own art. The exhibition attempted to ameliorate part of this problem with the extensive information provided on the indigenous art. Ultimately, in not explicitly addressing the issues, the exhibition made a glaring error.

Aside from the issues of colonialism and appropriation, the exhibition made numerous references to Picasso’s many lovers without addressing his deep misogyny, both in his art and in his life. Whatever the reason for omitting these facts, it is unacceptable. It is worth noting that January 20, the Nelson will host a talk called “All Eyes on Picasso: The Art of Appropriation.” The event is free, and tickets can be reserved here.

The incredible amount of meticulous research that must have been required for this exhibition is what impressed me the most. Many of the indigenous artifacts included detailed explanations of their functions, which also noted misconceptions that would have been held by people of Picasso’s time. The largest of these explanations was a chart that explained the roles of different masks. I also appreciated the variety of the works shown, which ranged from masks to paintings to sculpture to photography and ranged in size from a little smaller than a shoe-string potato to absolutely hulking, massive structures.

One piece I particularly liked was “Still Life on a Pedestal Table.” In this piece, Picasso employs his characteristic non-naturalistic colors and exaggerated and distorted figures. What most struck me about this piece, however, is that this style, which is seen as so quintessentially Picasso, actually has its roots in indigenous art from around the world.

The overall concept of the exhibition also struck me. Instead of merely showcasing Picasso’s works, this exhibition sought to enter his mind. It is captivating as a viewer to know that either Picasso regularly viewed this piece in one of his many trips to Paris museums or it was actually in his private collection. In this way the exhibit was ingenious, and the inclusion of small anecdotes about an item’s obtainment, or actual photographs of Picasso with certain objects, added to this effect.

The photographs that were the most amusing did not include any of the indigenous artifacts. At the end of the exhibition, in the segment about Picasso’s life at his final studio, Villa La Californie in Cannes, were photographs by Kansas City-born photographer David Douglas Nelson. These photos included Picasso in the bathtub, Picasso playing with his children and Picasso working intently in his studio. These photographs helped bring Picasso to life. They were intimate enough that I felt as if I were there, which created a striking conclusion for an exhibition that succeeded in allowing the viewer to see through Picasso’s own eyes.

Cover photo courtesy of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Elliott Yoakum

Elliott is a sophomore Oxbridge literature and theory major and a staff writer for The Hilltop Monitor. He also manages the podcast, Hilltopics.

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