Picasso’s “Woman with Outstretched Arms” January 8, 2013

My favorite work in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is Pablo Picasso’s Woman with Outstretched Arms. You won’t find it in our galleries at the moment, for it is visiting New York, where it welcomes all visitors to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s special exhibition Picasso Black and White. This playfully monumental sculpture returns to its Houston home for the second and final stop of Picasso Black and White, opening at the MFAH February 24. This landmark exhibition surveys the major role monochromatic painting, drawing, prints, and sculpture played in Picasso’s career over the course of a lifetime; ranging from 1904 to 1970, this exhibition gives unique insight into Picasso’s creative genius. 

Woman with Outstretched Arms has a special place in Picasso’s career.  As a child, he cut figures and animals from paper for to entertain his younger sisters, and cut paper played a major role in his development of Cubist collage. Decades later, he returned to making cutouts once again, and in the early 1950s he began to translate his paper maquettes into small cut-and-folded sheet metal figures. In 1961, he returned once again to this means of working, and launched a collaboration with Lionel Prejger, the owner of a scrap-metal and demolition shop near Picasso’s home in Southern France. Over a two-year period, they created some 120 sculptures. While most of these are female nudes or portrait busts, Picasso also crafted owls, crows, bulls, and even monkeys, adding another layer of expression as he painted the final versions.

“Picasso seldom makes a drawing,” Prejger recounted, “but simply takes the paper in one hand and the scissors in the other, and begins to cut. Then the most important task, the folding begins: the folding is what produces the play of light in the finished sculpture.” Different versions of Woman with Outstretched Arms were translated from paper to metal, and even into sandblasted concrete. Yet no matter the medium, all share triangular torsos and a welcoming stance. Prejger said that after he accepted the artist’s proposal that they work together, Picasso confessed to him: “I’m achieving a dream I’ve had for a long time, to take these little pieces of paper scattered all around and turn them into a medium that will last.”