The ceremonial mask looks like a work by Picasso.
Or is that Picasso painting inspired by a mask from New Guinea?
That’s the heart of a major Picasso exhibition focusing on his fascination with the art of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. Straight from Paris, the show opens Friday at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Kansas City is the only booking in the United States, although the exhibit will appear later in Montreal.
But the Kansas City exhibit, “Through the Eyes of Picasso,” has been customized by the Nelson. It has more pieces than the Paris show and is supplemented by local private collections and by intimate photographs of Picasso taken by Kansas City native David Douglas Duncan, who gave them to the Nelson in 2013.
Nelson-Atkins CEO Julián Zugazagoitia has been itching to stage a Picasso show since arriving in Kansas City more than seven years ago.
“I’m passionate,” Zugazagoitia said recently as he energetically conducted his first preview tour while workers were still installing spotlights in the featured exhibition space at the south end of the Bloch addition to the art gallery.
“Picasso” actually fills three galleries, being one of the largest temporary shows the art museum has staged. It features 170 pieces of art, including more than 60 paintings, sculptures and other works by Picasso as well as more than 20 pieces of primitive art that he collected and kept until his death in 1973. Many pieces are on view in America for the first time.
Picasso was a conventional artist who was an accomplished painter at age 14. But in his mid-20s, his view of art was forever changed by a visit to the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris.
“A smell of dampness, of rot, stuck in my throat,” Picasso said of that 1907 visit. “It depressed me so much that I wanted to get out fast. But I stayed and studied.”
He saw that the allure of primitive works of art was in the abstraction of the human form. Why shouldn’t that face have two noses? So what if the mouth is on the side of the face?
“This brought him a freedom and a way to explore the human figure,” Zugazagoitia said.
The exhibition offers side-by-side pairings of African, Oceanic and American art, and the Picasso creations they inspired.
“Picasso” was five or six years in the making, from conception to research and negotiation.
“This is complex because Picasso’s work is so much in demand,” Zugazagoitia said.
This exhibition was originally curated by the Musée du Quai Branly and the Musée Picasso-Paris.
It contains reproductions of two of Picasso’s most famous and important paintings. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon documents the breakthrough inspiration that followed the Trocadéro visit. Guernica represents the bombing of a Basque town during the Spanish Civil War. Zugazagoitia likened the originals to the Mona Lisa: The museums that own them do not lend them out.
Kathleen Leighton, the Nelson’s manager of media relations, said the gallery is expecting great interest from the public in the Picasso exhibit, which will run through April 8. Tickets are $18 for adults, higher than the normally free museum usually charges for special exhibitions. But a “Picasso” ticket will also include admission to another show opening Dec. 16 in the Chinese Temple Room that will feature a jade burial suit.