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. 


On Display Now at Williams College Museum of Art

Dance We Must: Treasures from Jacob's Pillow, 1906-1940
            (though November 11, 2018)
RAWR! A WCMA Bestiary (though October 31, 2018)
Williams College Museum of Art
Williamstown, MA
Free admission

Click on any image for larger size.

Most visitors to the Williamstown area head for the Clark Institute of Art, Mass MoCA, or one of the area's numerous summer stock theaters. All are worthy, but one of the region's underappreciated gems is the Williamstown College Museum of Art (WCMA). The WCMA launches shows that bigger museums would ignore, and the level of curation is consistently top shelf quality. Here are two shows that are well worth seeing.

If you are a fan of modern dance, you probably already know of Jacob's Pillow, located near the town of Becket, approximately 35 miles southeast of Williamstown. It is, simply, one of the most important venues associated with modern dance in the country. Jacob's Pillow opened its doors in 1933, just three years after founder Ted Shawn (1891-1972) split with his wife, Ruth St. Denis (1879-1968). The two were a modern dance power couple upon their marriage in 1914, a union that wasn't destined to last given that Shawn was, in fact, a closeted gay man. That wasn't known for some time, though it wouldn't have been hard to surmise given that Shawn's original company at the Pillow was titled "Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers," and he often presented himself in a stereotypically fey fashion. Many also knew that he and Burton Mumaw (1912-2001) were longtime lovers.

The WCMA show doesn't say much about this, which is a sad omission in my view, though it is to their credit that it does give Ms. Denis equal billing in its display of costumes and photographs that span the years 1906 to 1940. The costumes dazzle in several ways.

First, when seen close up, one appreciates the illusion of the stage. What sparkles like magic just three rows back is revealed for what it is: the magic of seamstresses working with cut-rate fabrics and jazzing them with paste jewels and gild.  My wife's (late) grandmother once served as wardrobe mistress at Jacob's Pillow. One of her biggest jobs was stitching splits and installing costume patches—often in wings during a performance. Her greatest talent was that the audience seldom noticed! Seen off the stage, we can appreciate that the stage ware is imaginative, enchanting, and cheap. It served its purpose well. Modern dance dispensed with the conventions of traditional ballet in service of movement that favored free movement, artistic expression, and emotion rather than rigid form. In essence, the costumes accentuated bodies and dramatized movement. One was meant to watch the character/dancer contained by the clothes, not stare at the wrappers.

The second thing you will notice is the sensuality of modern dance. Call it another nail in the coffin of Victorianism. During the early years of the 20th century, the amount of skin on display on the dance stage scandalized older Americans. That was partly the point. Dance was one of the things that were new about the artistic movement now labeled modernism. Think of scanty dancewear and revealing movie clothing as akin to the way flappers sought to unbind the body.

Kudos to the WCMA for owning up to another aspect of modern dance: it was not at all politically correct. Today we'd use terms such as cultural appropriation or Orientalism to describe how non-Western expressions and clothing were stereotyped. Many early 20th century artists felt they were paying homage; in our day, we recognize that exoticizing another person's culture is problematic—even if intended to be benign. A classic example of this can be seen in Shawn's "Indian" costumes. Not only are they more homoerotic than authentic, in some cases—such as clothing designed to look like kachinas, dancers actually violated religious beliefs.

Modernism was a revolutionary. When barriers crumble, older norms of propriety collapse for good or ill. Dance fans and social critics alike can enjoy Dance We Must. Call is equal parts fascinating and shocking. 

Pieter Hugo, man with hyena, Nigeria
Also provocative is a show that draws upon the museum's collection of prints, paintings, drawings, and photographs that depict animals. RAWR! A WCMA Bestiary calls into question whether humans are special, or merely an animal that exerts hegemony over various others. It examines the relationship between humans and subordinate creatures in all the ways we relate to animals: as pets, companions, food, prey, enemies, entertainment, or objects of worship.

Robert Doisneau

Most of the images speak for themselves. This exhibit will make you laugh, upset you, and even horrify you. In each case, it will make you ponder the realms we (perhaps too glibly) label "human" and "animal."  

Robert and Joseph Cornell, Two Mouse Musicians
Marc Chagall

Rube Goldberg plan for improved smorgasbord

Rob Weir



John Woman Fascinates, Even When It Falters

John Woman (2018)
By Walter Mosley
Atlantic Monthly Press, 320 pages.

“The hierarchy of history rarely documents its greatest heroes—they’re too busy doing to waste time on legacy.” You probably don’t expect to pick up a Walter Mosley novel and read such a line. After all, he’s best known for his sharp-tongued, hard-boiled detective novels that draw comparisons to Raymond Chandler. Mosley has long been known for his jump-off-the-page lines and his African-American protagonists, but John Woman is another thing altogether: a book that’s both a mystery and philosophy of history.

The story catches fire in 1995, when protagonist Cornelius (“CC”) Jones is 16-years-old and is caring for his father, Herman, the projectionist at a silent movie house in Brooklyn operated by the tyrannical Chapman Lorraine. The latter is trying to squeeze every last dime from the old Arbuckle Theater—a task that means neglecting the building, Herman, and ticket-taker France Bickman—but mainly he’s just for the right moment to fire his employees and shutter the old barn. Herman is prematurely worn out physically and emotionally. He managed to escape Mississippi during the days of Jim Crow and make his way to New York, where he met Lucia Napoli, and Italian-American firecracker. They produced CC, but Lucia was simply too free-spirited to contain, and bolted when CC was just a child.

To say that Herman is an unconventional single father hardly scratches the surface. He is also an autodidact who overcame childhood illiteracy and schooled himself in history and philosophy. Forget Dr. Seuss and childhood primers; CC’s childhood bedtime stories came from such unlikely writers as Thucydides, Herodotus, Plato, and the Durants. Before he was 12, CC was expected to have views on Marx and Aristotle. Of course, at some point, a lad also comes of age. Circumstance forces CC to accelerate his maturation. He’s secretly covering for father at the Arbuckle, and is clandestinely initiated into life’s carnal pleasures by policewoman Colette Margolis, who is investigating Lorraine’s disappearance.

Be prepared for numerous inappropriate relationships; John Woman is not a novel that deals with the lives and values of the material- and status-conscious middle class. Quite the opposite; it moves from society’s bottom rung to the top half of the ladder. When Herman passes away—mourned only by his son, France, and his unpaid Irish housekeeper—CC finds that he has come into a legacy of the financial kind. John Woman is partly about reinvention, and we leap ahead to the year 2013. CC disappeared several identities ago. After obtaining degrees from Harvard under one name and some creative paperwork under another, he is now John Woman—there is a reason for the surname—an assistant professor of history at the New University of the Southwest in Arizona.

If you’re thinking, ho hum, another novel about a kid saved through education but worried about being exposed as a fraud, you couldn’t be more wrong. John/CC teaches a course titled Introduction to Deconstructionist Historical Devices and is widely acknowledged to be a genius and an iconoclast. Woman’s students love him—once they get him—but most of his colleagues loathe him. His approach to history is revolutionary; Woman insists that, “history is what is left over after all living memory has been erased.” Readers recognize this as confessional on one level, but Woman also asserts that history’s primary meaning lies with its future uses because all history is, at best, fanciful speculation based upon incomplete evidence. Even if you’re not a historian, you will find yourself drawn into John Woman’s methods and deductions. Call it an unconventional kind of detective work.

If you are a professional historian such as I, you will either read these passages and scores of other musings as affirmation of the dynamic nature of inquiry, or you’ll be outraged by how cavalierly John Woman dismisses traditional evidence. This tension is Mosley’s point. Woman’s colleagues think he’s a fraud; or is it that they are intimidated that he might expose them as being such? It doesn’t help that he’s not an outwardly warm person and, as we learn, not one who follows rules—more inappropriate relationships. Worst of all in the eyes of some, the college administration and a rich board member named Willie Pepperdine seem to love John Woman.

Here’s where the novel takes a twist that I found problematic. Without revealing too much, it seems that the school’s founders and leaders are more than one sees on the surface. There is a shadowy Illuminati-like organization called the Platinum Path of “strong-minded intellectuals” bent on saving humankind from itself. John Woman finds himself in its orbit, but does he wish to land? Can he escape the fact that he’s not yet history, as not all “living memory has been erased.” See John run, but can he hide?

I adored the first three quarters of this novel. I’m conflicted when Moseley goes Dan Brown on us. John Woman is so smart and provocative that I feel compelled to pull my critical punches, but it sure feels as if Mosley wrote himself into an existential corner from which only a dodgy contrivance could extricate him. I was fascinated by Herman, who was indeed a hero too busy doing to be concerned with legacy. John/CC is equally intriguing as a deconstructionist of both himself and the discipline of history. I would even consider using parts of Mosley’s book in a history class; it’s that thought-provoking. In the end, I was drawn to the remark that truth is found in “actions not your convictions.” I found considerably more veracity in Mosley’s characters than in a Platinum Path that seemed more a rusted tin cliché.

Rob Weir