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This trio doesn’t get out of the house very often. In fact, it’s the first time they have ever appeared together in public. They are taking a short vacation at the Ackland Art Museum through March 8, and they’d love to have you visit them in the museum’s 20th century gallery.

These privately held paintings by Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) are on loan from alumnus and philanthropist Julian H. Robertson Jr., founder of the Robertson Scholars Program. Coincidentally, this year is the 60th anniversary of Robertson’s graduation from Carolina in 1955.

“When he offered the chance to show some pictures from his collection, I chose these three on purpose,” said Ackland Director Peter Nisbet, gesturing toward the installation of the three Picassos, each a painting of a human head. “I thought they would make a great trio. And they really make a good conversation about the human form.”

Detail of “Head of a Woman, 1943” by Picasso.
Detail of “Head of a Woman, 1943” by Picasso.

The paintings come from three different decades in the Spanish artist’s long, productive career and are displayed from most recent (on the left) to oldest (on the right). “It’s an installation where we try to get at the emotional power of Picasso,” Nisbet said.

The latest to be painted, in 1965, is also the one most recently acquired by Robertson. “Head of a Man” looks like a statue of a Greek god, done in shades of gray green with bright splashes of yellow and pink as highlights. The closeness of the subject, its forward-facing eyes and thickly applied paint combine to create an image that seems poised to leave its frame, Nisbet said. This is the painting’s first appearance at the Ackland.

Picasso painted the center work, “Head of a Woman,” in the winter of 1943 with a more subdued palette. At the time, he was working in Nazi-occupied Paris, and he wasn’t getting along with his subject and companion, Dora Maar.

Perhaps that accounts for the monochromatic background of ashy gray and muddy brown, its dullness emphasizing the jagged placement and black outlines of the woman’s facial features and her black hair, the Ackland director explained. This painting, Nisbet’s favorite of the three, has been shown at the Ackland before, as part of the 2011 Carolina Collects exhibit that featured works loaned by alumni collectors.

The oldest painting is also the most colorful. In “Woman with a Hairnet,” painted in 1938, Picasso combines bright reds, oranges and blues with the patterns of the hairnet and the yellow stripes radiating in the background. Even though it was done at the same time as his “Weeping Women” series, Nisbet said, this work shows Picasso’s happier side. The painting has been shown at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.

The Ackland has other works by Picasso in its permanent collection, but no paintings. A 1957 earthenware plate circled by centaurs is grouped with the current installation. On Feb. 18, about a dozen of the Ackland’s 24 prints by Picasso, dating from 1905 to the 1960s, will go on view in the second-floor Study Gallery.

Because of its smaller size and intimate scale, the Ackland is an ideal venue to feature work from private collections for the public to enjoy, Nisbet said. And when it does, visitors notice.

“Within a day of this installation opening,” Nisbet said, “there was a comment in our visitor book saying something like, ‘Fantastic museum. Loved the Asian art and the Picassos.’”

By Susan Hudson, University Gazette

Published March 5, 2015