Through the Eyes of Picasso

February 27, 2018 By: Rachel Kabukala

Through the Eyes of Picasso explores Pablo Picasso’s lifelong fascination with global art. Famously charismatic, Picasso had a profound impact on 20th-century art. Well-schooled in academic painting, Picasso was an accomplished artist by his early 20s. Yet, he was always in search of the ‘new’ and different.

In 1907, his desire to break away from the art of his time took him to the Ethnographic Museum of the Trocadéro in Paris. There, he was struck by the inventive forms, abstract geometry, and expressive power of masks and sculptures from Africa, Oceania and the Americas. Although Picasso never travelled outside Europe, he formed and treasured a personal collection of over 100 works mainly from French colonies, including the Ivory Coast and Gabon. Through the Eyes of Picasso follows the trajectory of Picasso’s relationship with these objects and explores how they may have influenced the evolution of his iconic style throughout his career.

Exhibition photos courtesy Nelson-Atkins Media Services / Joshua Ferdinand, Chris Mullins M&E, Mark McDonald

Visitors to the exhibition are exposed to nearly 200 objects, including paintings, prints and sculptures by Picasso, as well as objects he may have seen at the Trocadéro, which now make up the collection of the musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac. In addition, 30 objects are included that were once part of Picasso’s personal collection of art from Africa, Oceania and the Americas, and this is the first time that some of these objects will be displayed in the United States. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is the only U.S. venue for the show, which will make its final stop at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts opening in May.

As the first featured exhibition I have worked on since joining the African Department at the Nelson-Atkins, Through the Eyes of Picasso is particularly special for me. Although in the past, I have helped facilitate the reinstallation of the museum’s African galleries and have curated several permanent collection rotations, the experience of working on a major exhibition was unique.

Conceived by Yves le Fur, Director of the Museum’s Heritage and Collections Department at the musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac (MQB), the exhibition became something very different from the Paris version once reimagined for Kansas City audiences. To begin with, Parisian audiences have easy access to many works by Picasso nearby at the Musée Picasso and the collections of MQB adjacent to the special exhibition (originally called Picasso Primitif). As the Nelson-Atkins does not have significant works by Picasso in its collection, this meant that the installation needed to be more didactic concerning Picasso’s career than the Parisian version. In addition, the Nelson-Atkins needed to supply more information on the global art for its audiences.

Bernard Ruiz y Picasso, grandson of Pablo Picasso, visiting The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s exhibition with Director Julián Zugazagoitia
Exhibition photos courtesy Nelson-Atkins Media Services / Joshua Ferdinand, Chris Mullins M&E, Mark McDonald

The physical space of the Nelson-Atkins’ Bloch Building facilitated the rethinking of the exhibition in Kansas City. The very modern building, by renowned architect Steven Holl, boasts soaring ceilings and an open design. This helped to allow Nelson-Atkins Director Julián Zugazagoitia, who served as curator for the exhibition, and the design team to manipulate the physical space to fit Julián’s vision for the show. Julián’s ability to reconstruct the exhibition for our specific audience is a testament to the rapport he has with MQB Director Stéphane Martin, a relationship that has seen additional exhibition partnerships.

In 2014, Gaylord Torrence, Curator of American Indian Art at the Nelson-Atkins, presented Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky, which made its debut at MQB before travelling to the Nelson-Atkins and eventually to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. That joint effort paved the way for Through the Eyes of Picasso, and the trust established between the institutions allowed for significant freedom when reimagining the goals for the installation and interpretation of the show for U.S. audiences.

Some of the objects displayed in Paris were not able to travel with the exhibition. The Nelson-Atkins is very fortunate to have generous local collectors who were willing to loan some wonderful examples of similar objects to supplement the checklist. These include the Baga serpent mask pictured and an exceptional Punu mukudj mask like the one owned by Picasso.

Exhibition photos courtesy Nelson-Atkins Media Services / Joshua Ferdinand, Chris Mullins M&E, Mark McDonald

In the early 1900s, Picasso began looking at and collecting art from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. He was drawn to these works because they were so different from what he was used to seeing. For him, global art felt liberated from the European artistic conventions which he found stifling. It was the beginning of life-long experimentation and innovation.

In 1907, Picasso made his first visit to the Ethnographic Museum of the Trocadéro in Paris. It was transformative. The displays of objects from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas (some of which are now housed at MQB) challenged his sense of what art was and how it functioned. He spoke of repulsion and fascination and of discovering the concept of art as catharsis. He said, “For me, the masks were not just sculptures. They were magical objects, intercessors, against everything—against unknown, threatening spirits. They were weapons—to keep people from being ruled by spirits, to help free themselves. If we give form to these spirits, we become free.”

Some of the masks he might have seen at the Trocadéro and similar masks are assembled in the first section of the exhibition, pictured below.

Exhibition photos courtesy Nelson-Atkins Media Services / Joshua Ferdinand, Chris Mullins M&E, Mark McDonald

This map below highlights the geographical and cultural diversity of the objects in the exhibition. Although he didn’t travel outside of Europe, Picasso saw and collected works from around the world.

Exhibition photos courtesy Nelson-Atkins Media Services / Joshua Ferdinand, Chris Mullins M&E, Mark McDonald
Exhibition photos courtesy Nelson-Atkins Media Services / Joshua Ferdinand, Chris Mullins M&E, Mark McDonald

Nimba Mask, Baga culture, 19th century
Wood, iron, raffia, 49 58 x 23 14 x 25 inches
Musée national Picasso-Paris, MP3637
Image © RMN-Grand Palais Art Resource, NY
Photograph by Beatrice Hatala
Exhibition photos courtesy Nelson-Atkins Media Services / Joshua Ferdinand, Chris Mullins M&E, Mark McDonald

By 1918, two headdresses of D’mba—the ideal female in Baga society—were in Picasso’s studio, and he placed them prominently in his many residences. D’mba has a formidable presence, with a prominent nose, strong neck, and heavy breasts. The four supports would have been concealed by a fibre and cloth costume and the face polished with oil before a performance. Her appearance signalled prosperity and well-being for all who witnessed her.

The simple geometry of this type of Kru mask appealed to Picasso, and he had bought two of them by 1912. The mask’s projecting, cylindrical eyes helped him define his approach to sculpting a cardboard Guitar in 1912.

Mask, Guiglo, Ivory Coast, Kru culture, late 1800s - early 1900s
Wood, plant fibres, 31 1/2 x 8 11/16 x 9 inches
Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, Paris. Inv. 71.1932.89.18
Image © musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac
Reliquary Guardian, Congo, late 1800s – early 1900s
Wood, copper alloy, 25 5/8 x 13 x 3 1/4 inches
Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, Paris. Inv. 70.2010.19.2
Image © musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac
Photograph by Claude Germain

Because the exhibition involves multiple public and private international lenders, the orchestration of art shipments and object couriers during installation was no small feat. Our head of registration worked tirelessly leading up to and during the two-week-long install to ensure that everything went smoothly, and found solutions for all of the hurdles that came our way (for example, U.S. Customs does not make it easy to import objects containing any number of unknown varieties of fur, horn, bone, skin, seed and wood species).

In 1944, Picasso traded one of his valuable paintings for this significant sculpture. Cast in bronze, it depicts a ruler (the Oba) of the kingdom of Benin and would have been placed on a memorial altar. He wears a woven cap, pendant strands, and a high collar representing official regalia that would have been constructed of coral beads.

Exhibition photos courtesy Nelson-Atkins Media Services / Joshua Ferdinand, Chris Mullins M&E, Mark McDonald
Head of an Oba, Nigeria, Benin culture, mid-1800s
Bronze, h x diam: 21 1/4 x 14 3/16 inches
Musée national Picasso-Paris, MP2626
Image © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY
Photograph by Beatrice Hatala

The photographs by David Douglas Duncan featured at the end of the exhibition are from the museum’s collection and are exclusive to The Nelson-Atkins’ installation. Originally from Kansas City, Duncan had a deep friendship with Picasso. Duncan met Picasso in 1956 and was immediately welcomed into the artist’s home. The intimacy of their friendship is indicated by Duncan’s first photograph of Picasso—soaking in his bathtub! Until the artist’s death in 1973, Duncan returned often to visit, creating an unparalleled visual record of the artist at work and at play.

Exhibition photos courtesy Nelson-Atkins Media Services / Joshua Ferdinand, Chris Mullins M&E, Mark McDonald

“The greatest artistic emotion I have felt was when I was suddenly struck by the sublime beauty of the sculptures carved by anonymous artists in Africa. Passionately religious, yet rigorously logical, these works are the most powerful and most beautiful things ever produced by the human imagination.”

—Pablo Picasso


As I poured over the exhibition checklist for months on end, the thumbnail images of the objects translated into medium-sized pieces in my mind (despite the fact that I knew the actual dimensions of each). I remember being delighted by this little Bembe figure when it was unpacked for installation. It is a far more intimate piece than I had anticipated, and at about 3.5 inches tall, the intricate carving representing scarification on the torso of the figure is quite remarkable.

Male Figure, Bembe, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bembe culture, 1900s
Wood, 4 5/8 x 2 1/16 x 1 3/4 inches
Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, Paris. Inv. 71.1932.89.18
Image © musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac

My role in the exhibition involved primarily the initial translation of exhibition materials, editing the English language version of the catalogue, image rights, and working on didactic content, including exhibition timeline, brochures and labels. Great care was placed on providing visitors with details about the cultures from which the global art originates and about the original use of the objects. This was done to communicate important contextual information that Picasso didn’t know. The curatorial and education departments intentionally paired these descriptions with a visual assessment of the object’s artistic merit and aesthetic qualities, so as not to diminish their value as exceptional works of art in any way.

The Nelson-Atkins supplemented the exhibition with a robust offering of public programs, including an insightful panel discussion called The Art of Appropriation that wrestled with questions of appropriation, appreciation, and inspiration as those concepts apply to Picasso’s work and Western art and culture. A speaker series featuring several prominent scholars and museum leaders kicked off on February 22nd with a presentation by Peter Stepan, author of Picasso’s Collection of African & Oceanic Art: Masters of Metamorphosis. The next speaker will be Stéphane Martin, president of MQB, on March 22nd and the series will culminate with a talk by the president of the Musée National Picasso–Paris, Laurent le Bon, on April 5th.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work on an exhibition of this magnitude, in both the number of objects displayed and the importance of the content presented, and I feel fortunate to have done it in collaboration with the distinguished teams from the musée du quai Branly–Jacques Chirac and the Musée national Picasso–Paris.

Anthropomorphic Mask, Ivory Coast, Dan culture, before 1966
Wood, 9 7/8 x 6 1/8 x 3 5/16 inches
Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, Paris. Inv. 73.1966.3.10
Image © musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac
Photograph by Claude Germain
Exhibition photos courtesy Nelson-Atkins Media Services / Joshua Ferdinand, Chris Mullins M&E, Mark McDonald

“For me the masks were not just sculptures. They were magical objects, intercessors, against everything – against unknown, threatening spirits. They were weapons – to keep people from being ruled by spirits, to help free themselves. If we give form to these spirits, we become free.”

—Pablo Picasso


Through the Eyes of Picasso runs at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art—4525 Oak Street, Kansas City, Missouri, United States—until April 08, 2018.


Rachel Kabukala

Rachel Kabukala is the Curatorial Assistant for African Art at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and has been with the museum since 2014. She served on the exhibition team for Through the Eyes of Picasso and is currently organizing A State of the Field Convening: The Future of African Art, which will take place at the Nelson-Atkins in the spring.


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