Pablo Picasso, like William Shakespeare or Ludwig van Beethoven, occupies that rare echelon of cultural ubiquity whereby the mere mention of his name is a metonym for his art form. As such, there are many people who will eagerly line up to see “Visiting Masterpieces: Pairing Picasso” at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (on view through June 26) simply because it is Picasso. Equal numbers of would-be visitors, in search of something more esoteric, will roll their eyes and ignore it simply because it is Picasso. Such is the curse of notoriety—when our greatest cultural icons become symbols above and beyond themselves, we often excuse ourselves from a taking a second, closer look. As the poet Gwendolyn Brooks wrote in a dedication to Picasso’s famous sculpture in Chicago’s Daley Plaza, “Art hurts. Art urges voyages—and it is easier to stay at home.”
You should not stay at home, for “Pairing Picasso” is quite remarkable. The exhibition unites four major works from the Fondation Beyeler in Switzerland with pieces from the MFA’s permanent collection and others on loan from private collections. They are arranged in four pairs and a trio, inviting viewers to draw comparisons between thematically related works. We see a charcoal sketch of Picasso’s mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter from a private collection alongside a portrait of her rendered in oil. The startling and brash Rape of the Sabine Women (1963), from the MFA’s permanent collection, is hung next to Picasso’s monochrome treatment of the same subject—Roman soldiers in the eighth century abducting neighboring women—completed a year prior and on loan to the MFA from the Beyeler collection.
In the MFA’s 1963 piece, a woman’s breast is exposed at eye level, while her child—wide eyes, teeth locked, painted in a ghostly white—reaches up in anguish toward a Roman soldier. Every small cruelty is illuminated. The horse’s hoof, covered by a shoe studded with nails, invites one to reflect on how much the iron would hurt, how it would imprint on the flesh for a brief second before piercing and then annihilating it. In the monochrome painting (1962), muddled in scales of black and gray, there is no child—only a single woman staring hollowly into the eyes of the horse as a distant, lone soldier descends on her with a knife.
Picasso is a master worker of the body, calling into question what you think you know about your own muscles. Does my flesh do that? Am I so mortal, so grotesque? What is womanhood, if a figure seated in the familiar portraitist’s pose in Woman in Green can have her face arrayed in forms so deeply unfamiliar, her nose a blue elephantine form, one eye smaller than another, mouth jutting to one side in angular thrust?
Indeed, the woman’s body is the unspoken subject of “Pairing Picasso.” Women are the subjects of all eleven of the works, which goes unmentioned in the curatorial text and wall labels. “For each of the works around you,” reads the central text, “Picasso’s starting point was the human form: a motif both familiar and fascinating, and ripe for transformation.” But told differently, this exhibition is a story of pairings of a different sort.
To walk around the intimately sized gallery space is to encounter Picasso’s lovers and companions in sequence (before concluding with the two Rape of the Sabine Women pieces, which hang on the same wall as the entry and exit). With the exception of Sleeping Nude”(Marie-Thérèse Walter) in which Walter appears in repose with her head resting languidly on her arm, each is either a static portrait of a woman or a depiction of a woman in duress. Aside from the Sabine women cowering before the Roman soldiers, there is also“The Rescue” (1932). In this oil painting on loan from the Fondation Beyeler, one woman pulls another from a marsh, the latter’s head bent backward precariously as though she is unconscious, while a dark-eyed face watches from the water—perhaps the reflection of the now-unconscious woman that had lured her to the riverbank, as in the tale of Narcissus. The image recalls an incident in which Walter nearly drowned in the Marne River.
Picasso met Walter when she was 17 years old and he was 45. Though he never divorced his wife, he and Walter had a daughter together. Shortly thereafter, Picasso left Walter for poet and painter Dora Maar. Walter would later hang herself. Two portraits of Maar are present in “Pairing Picasso,” one in which she is posed staidly and one in which she is foregrounded in spindly lines of ink. Although she assisted Picasso with painting and documentation of his masterwork, Guernica, he would leave her in 1944 for Françoise Gilot, with whom he also had two children. Gilot appears in two portraits of her own, Woman at the Window (1952) and Head of a Woman (1952).
“Pairing Picasso” also includes a bronze Cubist bust of Fernande Olivier, as well as a representational portraiture of her from Picasso’s early years. Olivier is the only of Picasso’s partners to have known him before he achieved success as an artist, and her extensive memoirs of their seven-year relationship have contributed mightily to our understanding of the man. In Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time and the Beauty That Causes Havoc, Arthur J. Miller writes of an incident in which Olivier, after a miscarriage, adopted a 13-year-old girl from an orphanage, but ultimately sent her back after discovering Picasso’s explicit drawings of the child. “Picasso’s relationships were often complex,” reads the curatorial text on the wall. Brooks’s poem, which she read at the dedication of the massive Picasso sculpture in 1967, begins: “Does man love Art? Man visits Art, but squirms.” Visitors to “Pairing Picasso,” in considering the succession of women whose bodies are now on view long after their deaths, may come to understand why.