Audio Photo Essay

Inside Houston's highly-anticipated Picasso show: Expert delves deep to give exclusive insights

Pablo Picasso, Woman Asleep at a Table, Le-Tremblay-sur-Mauldre, Dec. 18, 1936, oil and charcoal on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Mr. and Mrs. Klaus Perls Collection, 1997


As far as art exhibitions go, the most profound are rooted in a simple idea. Picasso Black and White, on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston from Sunday through May 27, took shape as Carmen Giménez, curator of 20th-century art at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, delved deep into the works of the Spanish-born master.

Giménez discovered that at the very point when Picasso was nearing a radical shift in his aesthetic journey, he would strip color from his works and focus on form and concept.

Picasso Black and White parses through monochromatic paintings, sketches, sculptures and works on paper that encompass 66 years, from 1907 to 1970. The collection is drawn from private collections, the artist's family and museums and galleries across the globe.

This audio photo essay gathers 14 priceless masterpieces on view. Alison de Lima Greene, MFAH curator of contemporary art and special projects, offers insightful — and sometimes comic — commentary on a selection that serves as an amuse bouche for this one-in-a-lifetime show.

Click through the photos and be sure to listen by activating the player below.

Pablo Picasso, Woman Ironing, Bateau-Lavoir, Paris, spring 1904, oil on canvas, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Thannhauser Collection, gift, Justin K. Thannhauser, New York


Picasso in 1904 was living poorly in Montmartre, a suburb north of Paris, in an apartment lacking heat and plumbing.

Consider the oeuvres of Picasso's Blue Period: They are somber, serious, somewhat melancholic. But they all have a compassion for the working class, a respect for those making a living through everyday manual labor. 

More than just an homage to this sect of Parisian society, Picasso shows knowledge of the history of art. Woman Ironing nods to El Greco, an artist he studied while visiting the galleries of the Museo Nacional Del Prado.

Pablo Picasso, Head of a Man, 1908, ink and charcoal on paper, private collection


There's more to this drawing that first meets the eye. Influenced by his new friendship with Georges Braque, Head of a Man is a first step toward Cubism.

The strong and emotive sketch is mused by a Congolese mask, one Picasso would have seen at the Museum of Man in Paris. He visited there often in search of an approach that would liberate his art from Western tradition.

Look through the foreground of the work on paper. You may uncover what this man may be thinking about.

Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman (Fernande), 1909, plaster, Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection, Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas


Picasso's sculptures aren't as well known as his paintings and drawings, though there have been art shows dedicated to his output in this three-dimensional medium.

Head of a Woman is his first major statement in the genre. Fernande Olivier, his lover at the time, was a beautiful and modest woman who captured his attention. Picasso seized her spirit in both in plaster and bronze.

Pablo Picasso, Accordionist, Céret, summer 1911, oil on canvas, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, by gift


The first decade of the 1900s was teeming with aesthetic currents flowing in many different directions. Picasso's Accordionist surfaces at a time when the artist peaked in his experiments with Abstraction. 

As much as this image seems like a kaleidoscope of a deconstructed reality, Picasso doesn't remove the subject completely from its original form. Instead, the viewer is cajoled into transferring the geometric shapes to reconstruct a puzzle that tickles the visual imagination.

Pablo Picasso, Woman in White, Paris, fall 1923, oil, water-based paint and crayon on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1951; acquired from the Museum of Modern Art, Lillie P. Bliss Collection


Much changed in Picasso's life from 1911 to 1923. His artistic partnership with Braque ended with the onset of World War I in 1914. In the late 1910s he became invested in Serge Diaghilev, who commissioned from Igor Stravinsky The FirebirdPetrushka and The Rite of Spring.

Scholars surmise that Woman in White is a portrait of Olga Stepanovna Khokhlova, one of the legendary premier ballerinas of Diaghilev's troupe. Picasso and Khokhlova married in 1918; she bore his only son, Paulo.


Pablo Picasso, The Milliner’s Workshop, Rue La Boéte, Paris, January 1926, oil on canvas, Musée national d’art modern/Centre de creation industrielle, Centre Pompidou, Paris


The Milliner’s Workshop hails from a later phase in Picasso's Cubism that came after the analytical phase of his earlier works. It's his first large scale painting, almost the size of a shop's window.

What Picasso depicted is the interior of a hat maker's shop; one just like it was open for business outside his apartment. On the right side of the image, a man peeks through an open door.

Considering that gifting a woman a hat was highly regarded as a chivalrous gesture, Picasso offers a delightful social convention of Parisian society.

Pablo Picasso, Head of a Horse, Sketch for Guernica, Paris, May 2, 1937, oil on canvas, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid


After the bombing of the civilian city of Guernica, Spain, Picasso rallied against such brutality in a commissioned mural to be displayed at the World Fair in Paris. The study sketch of Head of a Horse serves as an outcry against this and all acts of war, and it became an important symbol in Picasso's Guernica of 1937.

Guernica returned to his homeland only after its people enjoyed freedom from government oppression. This sketch typically hangs in an adjacent gallery where Guernica is on view at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid.


René and Jacqueline de la Baume Dürbach, Guernica Tapestry, after Pablo Picasso, commissioned 1955, wool, Mrs. Nelson A. Rockefeller


The Guernica Tapestry was commissioned by Picasso from René and Jacqueline de la Baume Dürrbach in the liking of the 1937 painting.

It was purchased by Nelson Rockefeller for the United Nations. The tapestry became the center of controversy when it was covered behind a blue curtain as Colin Powell rallied for war to the Security Council in 2003. It was moved to London's Whitechapel Gallery in 2009 and has been on indefinite loan to the San Antonio Museum of Art since 2012.

Click here for a CultureMap video of the hanging of the tapestry at MFAH with remarks by Alison de Lima Greene and Carmen Giménez.

Pablo Picasso, Skull, 1943, bronze, one of two unnumbered proofs, Private collection


In French, this Skull would have been called a death's head. Picasso didn't flee Paris like many of his contemporaries in light of World War II. He didn't feel an immediate personal threat, perhaps confident due to his international notoriety.

But he thought it was important to document the horrors of the era. In that effort, Picasso joined the communist party and fought for peace. 

Pablo Picasso, The Maids of Honor (Las Meninas, after Velázquez), La Californie, Aug.17, 1957, oil on canvas, Museu Picasso, Barcelona, gift of the artist, 1968


There's no mistaking what roused this somewhat comical composition. The subjects of Diego Velázquez's Las Meninasa painting Picasso knew very well from his visits to El Prado, are obvious, though he wouldn't have been in Spain for at least 20 years when he crafted The Maids of Honor.

This was one of 44 variations Picasso painted of Las Meninas. What's humorous is the proportions of the regal characters against the artist, who is towering above them on the right side of the canvas. 

Pablo Picasso, Reclining Woman Reading, 1960, oil on canvas, Collection of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, museum purchase, The Benjamin J. Tillar Memorial Trust


A new modernism suffused Picasso's style in the 1960s, a happier time for the artist now married to his second wife, Jacqueline Roque, and living near Cannes.

Reclining Woman Reading isn't a portrait of Roque, but a tribute to the great sleeping nudes of his predecessors like Titian's Venus of Urbino or Édouard Manet's Olympia.

Except this contemporary goddess is reading a paperback book in all her glory, supported by an avant garde lounger.

Pablo Picasso, Woman with Outstretched Arms, Cannes, La Californie, 1961, painted iron and metal sheeting, the MFAH, gift of the Esther Florence Whitney Goodrich Foundation


Houstonians are familiar with Picasso's whimsical Woman with Outstretched Arms, a major holding of MFAH's permanent collection.

Picasso was 80 years old when he collaborated with a man who owned a scrap metal shop and offered to shape iron to Picasso's specifications. Picasso would take the raw material and fashion tongue-in-cheek sculptures like this woman, who appears prepared to welcome viewers with a warm embrace.

Pablo Picasso, The Kiss, 1969, oil on canvas, Private collection, New York


As this interview was taped on Valentine's Day, it was fitting that our journey with Alison de Lima Greene concludes with this sensual oil on canvas. 

Picasso loved women, and many women mused many of his paintings, drawings, sketches and sculptures. Perhaps women bestowed Picasso with his artistic genius, a label that's often thrown around in good nature, though not always deserved.

Picasso is one of those exceptions.

Related City Guide Listings