Africa through Picasso's Eyes in Montreal

From Africa to the Americas: Face-to-Face Picasso Past and Present
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Montreal, Quebec through September 16, 2018.

Picasso was fascinated with non-Western art, especially that from Sub-Saharan Africa. We have known this for many decades. It’s rather obvious if you have even passing familiarity with Picasso's work. Yet somehow, a current exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts manages to astonish. How often have you heard that a picture is worth a thousand words? Think it’s just a cliché? The Montreal show does a simple thing and let’s its visual power strike you with the power of a lightening strike on the adjacent bench you just vacated. It juxtaposes, side-by-side, Picasso paintings and comparable works of African or other non-Western art.

Do you like irony? Consider that the most-famous modern artist who ever lived spent a considerable amount of time pondering much older things. Consider also that the future was anchored to the past, and that which was heralded as new was often an impressionistic sequel to what had already been. He, like Matisse, Vlamanick, and several others before him, first encountered non-Western art at the Musée d’Ethnographie Trocadéro in Paris. None of this diminishes the originality of Picasso or the depth of his vision. After all, it takes creativity and foresight to look beneath the surface of a tribal mask and imagine cubism, or to see connections to Greek myths and post-Freudian psyches within a sub-Saharan object.

Mostly, the Montreal exhibit confirms the spiritual and psychological depth of non-Western art, the richness of the many cultures from which it draws, and the power inherent in basic shapes. Picasso [1881-1973] wasn’t afraid to deconstruct those shapes, reassemble them in fragmented and non-sequential ways, and let their very unsettledness convey meanings deeper than waking reality could hope to suggest. So too do masks, head dresses, prints, statues, fetish objects, and other such like invite us to engage our imagination in ways that the prosaic and pragmatic cannot. 

As noted above, Henri Matisse [1869-1954] and others beat Picasso to the punch in merging African art, Western appropriation, and surreal suggestiveness. This is also pretty well known in the art world, yet Matisse gets little more than a minor nod in this exhibit. The youthful Picasso, who admired Matisse and went to Paris in part to meet him, knew better. Once young Pablo became Picasso, ego and myth making took over, but it would have been nice had the curators given more due to Picasso's creditors.

What follows speaks for itself and needs no further comment from me. Enjoy the images as the exhibit closes next week. Muse upon them, as you can do in miniature what was done on a larger scale in Montreal. All you need to do is enter a well-appointed museum, find a few Picassos, snap a few shots with your cellphone, and meander into the African and Micronesian galleries and play the comparison game. 

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