Picasso. The name is like a key to an alternative universe, an artistic cipher instantly recognizable worldwide, and incessantly beguiling. The great Spanish master left behind a legacy of massive proportions, partly due to his longevity and the “interesting times” he lived in, but mostly because of his enormous talent, and equally impressive, insatiable ego.

What is on display in the vast exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, is Picasso in the throes of an infatuation with African art, and the visual dialogue it inspired. From Africa to the Americas: Face-to-face Picasso, Past and Present is a dizzying collection of “primitive” art juxtaposed with the artist’s works that keep this overwhelming offering in check. An adaptation of an exhibition first mounted at Musée du quai Branly/Jacques Chirac in Paris, it has taken over the museum galleries in a somewhat unusual re-visiting of the past in an attempt, in the words of the museum’s director, Natalie Bondil, “to tell the story of the decolonization of the gaze of a century, that of Picasso.” With this in mind, the exhibition contains a huge amount of written information accompanying each segment, injecting a scholastic note that takes away from the pure enjoyment of the artworks on display, which to a large degree tell the story via the pictorial language of the many artists represented.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Head of a Bearded Man, 1938 (?), oil on canvas. Musée national Picasso-Paris, gift in lieu Pablo Picasso, 1979. © Estate of Picasso / SODRAC (2018). Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi

A century is a lot of time to cover. Picasso was born in 1881 and throughout his lifetime witnessed major changes, events that affected him, and his oeuvre. His “discovery”of African art left an indelible mark on his prolific production, seeping into his consciousness with its powerful visual stimuli. Photographs on display at the MMFA exhibit show him in his studio, surrounded by masks and sculptures, which he purchased or exchanged for his work, and with which he did not part. They became his silent companions, a Greek chorus to his creative endeavours.

Providing an endless, visceral inspiration, they were to inhabit his imagination till the end.

“I don’t want to paint a face, I want to write a face” was Picasso’s motto, giving the viewer a hint to the creative process behind his art. Sensing the true meaning of the so-called “primitive” art – a term long discarded –, he sought to express it by adapting it to his visual lexicon as only he knew how. Known for blatant appropriation and borrowing from his surroundings, he famously claimed not to “seek” but rather to “find” inspiration, and this unapologetic stance is fully on display in the show. Picasso’s works placed strategically amidst art from Africa and Oceania allow for the discovery of both at the same time, and provide a key to understanding how he painted, and what visual impulse dictated the compositions. Masks with displaced features hanging next to Picasso’s convulsed portraits of him many mistresses link the creative drive of these disparate artists, proving once and for all that art is the language of human expression from time immemorial, to which the 1880 discovery of the ancient cave paintings of Altamira in Santillana del Mar, Spain, attested. These beautifully executed drawings altered forever the very conception of art history, and attribution, for whether or not we knew who did them, this was undeniably art.

Picasso sensed that atavistic link when looking at African art, and it is to his enormous credit that he so willingly and passionately embraced the concept.

“The greatest artistic emotion I have felt was when I was suddenly struck by the sublime beauty of the sculptures carved by anonymous artists in Africa,” he said. “Passionately religious, yet rigorously logical, these works are the most powerful and most beautiful things ever produced by the human imagination.”

His seminal Les Demoiselles d’Avignon are perhaps the first example of this creative coupling, with Picasso placing African mask-like faces on two of the female figures. The rest, as they say, is history. Almost a hundred works by Picasso – paintings, sculptures, ceramics and works on paper – attest to the effect art from Africa and Oceania had on his creative imagination.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) Women at Their Toilette, Cannes, January 4, 1956. Oil on canvas. Musée national Picasso-Paris, gift in lieu Pablo Picasso, 1979 © Estate of Picasso / SODRAC (2018) Photo © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY / Mathieu Rabeau

In the exhibition, a three-dimensional, sculptural, D’mba mask by Baga artist from Guinea keeps company with Picasso’s painting of a bearded man, their features reflecting across time and space, while in another room a mask by a Dan artist from Côte d’Ivoire converses with Bust of a Man, one of the many studies Picasso did for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. A 1956 painting, Women at Their Toilette, is a chapeau to a stunning sculpted female dance head by an unknown 20th century Ejagham artist. The visual dialogue Picasso sparked is transformative and exciting, standing the concept of contemporary western art on its head.

The examples are myriad and touch upon the artist’s production at various stages in his life, punctuating history in a one-of-a-kind storyboard across time.

On a final note, the show also includes works by contemporary Black artists, appearing unexpectedly, sporadically, within the body of the presentation, and then spilling into a complementary exhibition Here We Are Here: Black Canadian Contemporary Art, conceived by the Royal Ontario Museum.

Perhaps too much of a good thing.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) Women at Their Toilette, Cannes, January 4, 1956 Oil on canvas. Musée national Picasso-Paris, gift in lieu Pablo Picasso, 1979 © Estate of Picasso / SODRAC (2018) Photo © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY / Mathieu Rabeau

From Africa to the Americas: Face-to-face Picasso, Past and Present, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, May 12 to September 16, 2018