The arc of the 20th century moves from order to chaos in the portraiture of Pablo Picasso. In 2021, the best examples of that trajectory will be on view in Nashville. A selection of more than 70 paintings, sculptures, drawings and etchings by last century’s greatest artist is making a single stop this year — the Frist Art Museum. The works in Picasso. Figures are on loan from the Musée Picasso in Paris, the largest public collection of Picasso’s works in the world, and are unified by their subject matter: the human figure.
In the exhibition statement, the Frist’s chief curator Mark Scala explains the appeal of focusing on the artist’s figurative works. “Viewers will see how, as Picasso continuously deconstructed and then remade the body, he was also recasting the history of figuration as a combination of his own psychological view of humanity and observations about the disruptive nature of life in the 20th century.”
A work like “The Barefoot Girl,” painted by an impossibly young Picasso in 1895, falls so early in the artist’s timeline that it’s usually categorized under the generic “Early Years” period. The 29-by-19-inch oil painting shows a level of realism not often associated with Picasso, whose frequently jumbled arrangement of facial features has been aped in everything from The Far Side to Toy Story. The wide, expressive eyes — each so singular that it hardly seems like part of a pair — and thick feet hint at elements that will recur throughout the artist’s prolific career.
Of interest to fans of the groundbreaking “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” is a handful of paintings from that period showing the artist gaining mastery over the mask-like cubist facial constructions. Two works, “Seated Nude” and “Bust,” are even subtitled as studies for the 1907 masterpiece, and feature clues into the process behind “Demoiselles” — the 48-by-37-inch “Seated Nude” includes a curtain pulled back along its edge, for example.
Another standout is the 1937 oil painting “The Supplicant,” an extraordinary portrait of a crying woman with arms stretched to the sky. Her frenzied expression evokes another Picasso masterpiece — the 25-foot-long anti-war painting “Guernica,” which features a figure with a similar skyward-grasping stance and was painted in the same year. But “The Supplicant” is masterful in its own right, and shows how the artist’s combination of detail and minimalism — the almost cartoonishly exaggerated mouth and grasping, claw-like hands are set off by a stark background and black-block dress — conjure the twin ailments of anxiety and despair.
For the Frist to host an exhibition as monumental as Picasso. Figures — and to be the only American institution to do so in 2021 — speaks to a level of confidence in Nashville’s residents and visitors. But it’s also proof that the visual art community is vital to the city’s prosperity.
“The selection of the Frist in Nashville as the only U.S. venue for this show is a wonderful testament to our city’s growing national and international stature as a cultural destination,” says Frist director Susan Edwards in a press release. As the Frist celebrates its 20th anniversary after one of the most challenging years in Nashville’s history, it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate signal.