The British painter Lucian Freud liked to tell a story about a time he visited Pablo Picasso. The Spaniard’s studio was festooned with art. He invited the young Freud to look around, and suggested he pick out the half-dozen works he liked best.
Freud took his time with the assignment. He was excited, and felt obliged to choose carefully. After a good, long look, he came back with his choices. Six paintings.
“Oh, good,” said Picasso, offhandedly. “They’re among the ones I did yesterday.”
What to do with this freak called Picasso? How to manage his manifold capabilities, his pyrotechnic brilliance, his bucking-firehose productivity?
“Pairing Picasso,” at the Museum of Fine Arts, presents an exemplary answer. It’s about concision.
Organized by MFA curator Katie Hanson, the show — which is the latest installment in the museum’s “Visiting Masterpieces” series — divides 11 works by Picasso into groupings: four pairs and a trio.
The works are from the Beyeler Foundation in Switzerland, from private collections, and from the MFA. There are seven paintings, a sculpture, and three works on paper.
Yet what’s so successful about the show is neither the chronological range (1905-63) nor the radical concision. It’s the snazzy pairings.
Case in point: The MFA’s own “Rape of the Sabine Women” is paired with one of three other versions Picasso made of the same subject in the early 1960s. The MFA painting is vividly colored: blue-gray horses and humans are set against a blue sky and green hills, with splashes of bright red and yellow. The Beyeler work, the wilder and more disturbing of the two (though not necessarily the better), is all in shades of gray.
Both draw on a story of violence and trickery that is at the heart of Rome’s origin myth. After the death of his brother Remus, Romulus, needing to swell his city’s population, invited his Sabine neighbors to a religious festival with the promise of entertainments. At his signal, Roman soldiers forcibly abducted all the young Sabine women in attendance and carried them off as wives.
Picasso’s treatments of the subject came in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis. The prospect of nuclear annihilation was real. In this skittish atmosphere, Picasso was asked to submit a work to the Salon de mai exhibition in Paris. Participants were encouraged to riff on Eugene Delacroix’s “Entry of the Crusaders Into Constantinople,” a scene of medieval war featuring a foreshortened horse, a city burning in the background, and a desperate group of starving and brutalized civilians in the foreground.
Picasso, whose brain seems to have been a constantly clicking slideshow carousel encompassing the whole history of art, clearly kept this image in mind. But his contribution drew on earlier dramatizations of the Sabine abduction by Poussin and Giambologna.
And it was even more closely in dialogue with Jacques-Louis David’s depiction, 10 years into the French Revolution, of the moment when the Sabine women purportedly intervened in the conflict. In David’s famous painting, Romulus’s wife, Hersilia, a Sabine, thrusts herself, arms outstretched, children at her feet, between her husband and her father, the Sabine leader.
Picasso had asked friends to send him slides not only of the David painting, but of Poussin’s “Massacre of the Innocents.” He projected them (oh, glorious 20th century!) onto his walls at night.
The MFA painting, an extraordinary mash-up of all this imagery, shows a woman and screaming child at the feet of two soldiers (one of them astride a horse) pointing their weapons at one another, a la the David. The composition is crowded and flat. But within the congestion, Picasso contrives his usual brilliant gamut of spatial twists and ambiguities.
The Beyeler version, which was painted first, does not have the figure pointing his sword at right. It replaces him with the rear end of a horse. (The difference is not great: To Picasso, one rear end was evidently as good as another).
The woman in the foreground is not only foreshortened but jackknifed, as if in some physique-defying yoga maneuver: back bent, arms erupting into the composition above.
The lack of color inclines us to read the forms sculpturally. But Picasso also exploits the possibilities of oil: The woman’s skin, for instance, is rendered with patches of broadly slapped-on white paint, while other areas of white are simply untouched primed canvas.
Picasso’s lovers, no surprise, are the glue connecting other pairs. Francoise Gilot is the subject of two works, a painting and a lithograph, made on consecutive days in 1952. Fernande Olivier is the subject of the MFA’s faceted, early Cubist sculpture “Head of a Woman” (1909), and its beautiful, Ingres-inspired painting-as-drawing.
And Dora Maar is the subject of two absorbing nearby works from the Beyeler: a gouache and ink painting in pretty pastel colors from 1938 and a larger oil painting, dominated by Maar’s dark green dress, from 1944.
Half-Yugoslav, half-French, and raised in Argentina, Maar was a brilliant Surrealist photographer who later took up painting. When she met Picasso, she was entangled with the philosopher, pornographer, and breakaway Surrealist Georges Bataille. Picasso himself was snarled up with his alienated first wife Olga, his young lover Marie-Therese Walter, and his friend Paul Eluard’s lover, Nusch.
No wonder, then, that he became obsessed around 1938 with spider webs. He was fascinated, too, by all things woven, plaited, knitted, or embroidered. So it’s remarkable to drink in the complexity of the woven, web-like lines he used to cover Maar’s face, shoulders, and bust in the ’38 gouache.
Maar was the most creatively brilliant and intellectually formidable of Picasso’s lovers. According to Francoise Gilot, the woman who replaced Dora in Picasso’s affections, “The most remarkable thing about her was her extraordinary immobility.”
This quality comes through in the green portrait of her from ’44. By this time, Picasso’s affair with Gilot had already begun, and he and Maar had drifted apart. Maar was showing signs, unsurprisingly, of mental instability.
But Picasso’s portraits were rarely attempts to get to grips with his subjects’ states of mind. They were self-portraits, ciphers for his own preoccupations.
The green portrait of Maar sees Picasso resuming an old pictorial conversation with Cezanne’s portraits of his wife, and with the artists — Gauguin, Matisse, Gris — who had been similarly inspired. The image distils a tension — a tragic one, especially in 1944 — between civilization (Maar’s upright posture, clasped hands, and decorative dress) and raw, flared-nostrils barbarity.
The earlier images of Marie-Therese Walter include a charcoal drawing of Picasso’s young lover sleeping. Made in 1932, it’s on a large scale, and its many pentimenti (incompletely erased lines) interact with its more emphatic final outlines to create the impression of a layering of dreams, as in veils or thinning atmospheres. It’s entrancing.
Just as memorable is “The Rescue.” It’s the most beautifully colored of a series Picasso made in poetic response to the time Walter almost drowned in the Marne. The painting combines green and purple (Matisse’s favored harmony in his early, pre-Fauve years) with blue and tropical outbreaks of yellow and orange. The quality of the background green is rough and textured, scraped back. Picasso contrives rhymes of form across the canvas: limbs, breasts, buttocks, foreheads, fingers.
There are times when Picasso can feel like an exhausting showoff, an emotional lightweight. The minutes you spend in front of “The Rescue” will not be among them.
VISITING MASTERPIECES: Pairing Picasso
At Museum of Fine Arts. Through June 26. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.