Pablo Picasso, without colors

'Picasso in Black-and-White' taps into the painter’s genius – his creativity, his moral passion, even his sense of play.

Picasso, without color. Picasso, in black and white and gray. Picasso, touching war and loneliness. Picasso, immersed in play.

“Picasso Black and White,” on display at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, showcases master painter Pablo Picasso in all of these dimensions. This major exhibit, which runs through May 27, is serious, sobering – and inspiring, too, for what it reveals about Picasso’s creative process.

“I loved watching my father paint because he approached the canvas as if he were dancing on tiptoes,” Maya Weidmeier-Picasso — the painter’s daughter — remarks on the exhibit’s audio guide. “First, he painted. Then, to see the work, he had to back away. Then he looked at the painting from a distance to see what it needed. Then he danced off again.”

Picasso always painted on tiptoe, says his daughter. He claimed “walking on tiptoes got rid of your paunch.”

Picasso’s energy, his tiptoe spontaneity, is palpable in the exhibit. In the company of so many canvases, there is also a Picasso piece created on a pantry door, another on a chalkboard. Here: In his kitchen, Picasso slathers the back of a cabinet door in white oil, then traces out a “portrait” of his wife with the blunt end of a pencil. Black on white, in an instant, in the spirit of play.

Picasso’s recurrent, lifelong affection for monochrome — or an “austere palette” — is the premise of the exhibit. But it could have been called: “Picasso Black and White … and Gray, Lots of Gray … and Guest Appearances by Muted Blues and Greens and Reds.”

The message of “Picasso Black and White”: Sometimes, color can get in the way. Sometimes, color can distract from the painter’s intent. As underscored in the exhibit: Picasso would often “eliminate” color to draw attention to “form, line and structure.” According to his daughter, Picasso once remarked that “a spot of red” on a canvas was not essential to a given painting. “You could take the red away, and there would always be the painting.”

“Picasso Black and White” debuted at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in late 2012 before moving to Houston in late February. The Guggenheim version was a larger, more breathtaking exhibit: 118 works of painting, drawing and sculpture — 38 never before shown in the United States. The Houston exhibit features roughly two-thirds of the Guggenheim works, plus a few different pieces.

Yet there’s a striking intimacy to the Houston show, and some fascinating groupings. An entire room, for example, is devoted to anti-war pieces from the 1930s, including several works Picasso painted in advance of his monochromatic masterpiece, “Guernica.”

In the next room: Several Picasso works from the 1940s with constructions that riff on his cubist roots. Tables, the suggestion of tables, abstract still-lifes focused on tabletops are all around — including a portrait of a woman whose head seems to sit on a square-shouldered torso that suggests a tabletop. This sets up the Picasso masterpiece on the dominant wall: “The Charnel House,” which depicts dead bodies, victims of war, sprawled on the floor beneath a table. A splay of arms and legs, a face locked in an expression of agony.

This cousin of “Guernica,” created in the aftermath of Nazi genocide, remains a devastating social statement against the cruelty of war, shown from the vantage of the victims. Pierre Daix, Picasso’s friend, remarks on the exhibit audio that Picasso painted “The Charnel House” from his own imagination — an act of artistic instinct, before the release of photos from the death camps, that “re-created” Daix’s own eye-witness experience at the Malthausen camp. Daix would eventually take Picasso to Auschwitz, as if to say: Here. What you depicted in art was what happened here.

Among the treats unique to the Houston exhibit: A tapestry “Guernica” created by French weavers, under Picasso’s supervision, commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller. For two decades, this “Guernica” was displayed at the United Nations in New York. Picasso fans will appreciate that it has more brown and sand accents than the original “Guernica” — and that, in this moment, its cautionary message of compassion radiates for all to see in Houston.

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