MFA's Picasso Exhibition Offers New Perspectives

Pairing Picasso at the MFA
(from left) Pablo Picasso, The Rescue, 1932, Head of a Woman, Portrait of Marie Thérése Walter, 1934. Byline: Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts/ Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
"One paints and one draws to learn to see people, to see oneself,” Pablo Picasso said in 1956. The newest exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, “Visiting Masterpieces: Pairing Picasso,” offers viewers an opportunity to experience the many ways in which Picasso saw people. The exhibition, which opened on Feb. 13, combines works on loan from private collections and from the Foundation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland. The exhibition successfully brings into focus both Picasso’s fascination with the human form and the diversity of pictorial styles that he developed to represent it.

The exhibition brought into conversation two distinct contexts in which Picasso represented the human form: his personal relationships and his political activism. The gallery contained paintings, drawings, and sculptures of women in Picasso’s life, including his lovers Françoise Gilot, Marie-Thérèse Walter, Fernande Olivier, and Dora Maar. These women served as the inspiration for many of his works, and the exhibition gives works depicting these women a prominent place. Particularly of interest were the two paintings of Gilot, and a sculpture and sketch depicting Olivier. The two representations of Gilot, “Woman at the Window” and “Head of a Woman,” both painted in 1952, initially seem to depict the same pensive woman. Yet the placement of the works next to each other also invites the viewer to look longer and deeper, searching for subtle differences in expression or points of similarity. In the two works depicting Olivier, the viewer confronts the same woman represented in vastly different media. The sculpture, “Head of a Woman” of 1909, gives a three-dimensional view of the head as a concrete form in space that the viewer can see from multiple perspectives. The sketch, “Fernande Olivier,” executed in 1905-1906, is by contrast much simpler and less fully realized, but seems to come to life in its own remarkable way.

A highlight of the exhibition were the two paintings revealing Picasso’s more political side: “Rape of the Sabine Women” of 1962, and another painting of the same title and subject from 1963. The exhibition presents these paintings as statements against the political turmoil and Cold War hostilities of the 1960s. The gallery thus sets up an interesting contrast between Picasso’s representations of the women he loved and his response to darker aspects of human life. They reflect Picasso’s interest in representing the communal as well as the personal aspects of human experience, and his investment in giving visual form to the suffering and loss associated with war. In the version from 1962, Picasso uses a limited and dark-toned color palette to depict the people within the composition. In the 1963 version, however, Picasso’s use of more colors and more defined shapes brings into sharper focus the anguish of the women and children.

“One cannot truly follow the creative process except through a series,” Picasso said in 1964. This exhibition offers viewers a valuable opportunity to follow Picasso’s creative process through his series, through subjects and sources of inspiration to which the artist returned multiple times. The viewer has the chance to chart Picasso’s own artistic development, to see visual evidence of his constant experimentation, and to marvel at the infinite permutations of color, line, and texture in his exploration of the human form.

—Staff writer Marianne T. Aguilar can be reached at