With Self-Portrait of a Lifetime, Picasso Returns to Paris Pedestal
The Picasso Museum in Paris has reopened
after a renovation that more than doubled its size.
With Self-Portrait of a Lifetime,
Picasso Returns to Paris Pedestal
The Picasso Museum Reopens in Paris
By Holland Cotter
The New York Times, October 27, 2014
Photos by Ed Alcock for The New York Times
PARIS — “Give me a museum and I’ll fill it,”Pablo Picasso reportedly said. Whether he did say it or not, it sounds like him, serial overproducer. And in a gray, leaf-drifting October here he’s as good as his word. The Picasso Museum, which closed for expansion in 2009, has finally reopened at more than twice its former size, but years overschedule and wrapped in a swirl of intrigue.
For the news media, the renovation project has been a gift. Work on the Baroque mansion that houses the museum, the world’s largest Picasso collection, dragged scandalously on and on. Budgets ballooned. There were shocked firings (Anne Baldassari, the museum’s director was dismissed), high-level hissy fits and ad hominem attacks galore. Who could ask for more?
The renovated Picasso Museum, closed since 2009 for renovation, finally reopened on Saturday in the Hôtel Salé, a Baroque 17th-century mansion.CreditEd Alcock for The New York Times
The art-loving public could. The museum, which debuted in 1985, is a popular draw. No matter how many great individual Picasso works there are in London, Madrid or New York, in its museum Paris has the artist himself, early and late, in major and minor mode. No wonder anxious crowds lined the sidewalks and swarmed the front door here for the public opening on Saturday.
Once inside, what do they get? Fabulousness — and frustration. On the unqualified positive side, there are more than 400 Picasso works encompassing his career, along with a gemlike selection of pieces he owned by artists he loved: Chardin, Degas, Cézanne, Gauguin, Braque, Miró, Matisse and Henri Rousseau. And in a sense, even his own work here represents a personal choice.
In breadth, texture and spirit, the exhibition is like no other. It is utterly different from, say, the large selection of Picassos in “Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection” now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met show is a classic lineup of trophy masterpieces. What’s at the Picasso Museum is closer to a sublime teaching collection, with scraps and masterworks mixed together. The goal here is less to monumentalize an artist or a style than to tell a complex story of how art is made by one person of protean energy over a specific stretch of time.
Picasso was a lifelong self-collector who kept examples of his art that he couldn’t or didn’t want to relinquish: juvenilia, pictorial notes to self, finished favorites, and souvenirs of loves and traumas gone by. He left this archive, or accumulation, to family members when he died in 1973. They sifted it and gave a vast amount to the French government in lieu of paying inheritance tax. It is this collection, essentially shaped by the artist himself, that the museum is built on.
A visitor viewing some of the museum’s 437 works on display, which include not only ones by Picasso but works by artists he admired.CreditEd Alcock for The New York Times
Given such richly personal material, it’s too bad the new presentation at the Picasso Museum — officially the Musée Picasso Paris — isn’t telling that story more persuasively. Architecture is part of the problem. The museum’s 17th-century home, the Hôtel Salé, in the historic Marais district, with its garden, courtyard and two-story, sculpture-encrusted entrance hall, has never been ideal for showing art.
The interior is choppy, with smallish spaces, dead ends, and illogical connections. The original 1980s renovation laid a white-walled Corbusian gloss over this without achieving a sense of unity. The new design, by the architect Jean-François Bodin, is basically a magnified version of the old plan. There’s more space — four floors of galleries, including a vaulted basement and loftlike attic with exposed beams and views of surrounding rooftops — but their order is still hard to navigate.
An impression of discontinuity is compounded by the idiosyncratic arrangement of art devised by Ms. Baldassari, who stayed on the job just long enough to organize the inaugural show. The main installation, on the first and second floors, begins with a few paintings by the adolescent Picasso in Spain, where he was born in 1881, and others from his first stay in Paris when he was barely out of his teens. The shift is dramatic: Murillo-style realism one year, the equivalent of psychedelia the next.
But the time frame quickly grows confusing. The collection’s earliest painting, “The Barefoot Girl,” from 1895, turns up two galleries away with some near-abstract 1930s sculpture. Elsewhere, a pairing of the “blue” self-portrait from 1901 with a sketchy moon-face one from 1972 makes sense in a compare-and-contrast way. But putting them with the 1914 Cubist “Man With a Mustache” and a bronze head from 1958 doesn’t, unless you’re saying that all Picasso male heads are self-portraits, which they aren’t.
A detail from Picasso’s sculpture “A Man With a Sheep” (1943).CreditEd Alcock for The New York Times
The trouble is, Ms. Baldassari doesn’t say anything at all about the choices she’s making. Labels with information are absent. The unstated idea, in curatorial vogue at the moment, is that art speaks for itself, end of story. But this isn’t so, and hasn’t been since the 18th century, when most art was still about politics and religion and pitched to a privileged insider audience. Art has changed; audiences have changed, widened. Today, no single body of shared knowledge can be assumed. Viewers need help, and deserve the choice to avail themselves of it.
By way of compromise, Ms. Baldassari shapes the show around a few loose themes. Under the label “Primitive” she has brought together an astonishing array of small paintings and drawings that demonstrate, step by audacious step, how “Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon” came into being in 1907. Under “War Paintings,” we see the 1937 “Guernica” simultaneously coalescing and sending sparks out in future directions.
Much of the museum’s collection, though, is from an in-between period, the late 1920s to the early 1930s, when Picasso was coming off his post-World War I “classical” phase, getting his radical mojo back, and beginning to think of himself as a surrealist. It was tough going. The new work didn’t sell too well — possibly that’s the reason he kept so much of it — and you can see why: It’s strong, aggressive stuff. Everything is teeth and genitals, penetrations and impalings. Bodies, mostly female, are crudités of detached limbs. Picasso appears repeatedly in the alter-ego of the Minotaur, an Ovidian sex machine.
Work from his sex-and-violence phase feels right at home in Paris this fall. An exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay, “Sade: Attacking the Sun,” is a tribute to the Divine Marquis and an orgy of erotically tortured figures. (The Picasso Museum lent paintings to the show.) At the Pompidou Center, Marcel Duchamp makes all sorts of slice-and-dice moves on the human form in a fine-tuned show of his paintings. And the Los Angeles artist Paul McCarthy has brought his elaborately offensive “Chocolate Factory” to Monnaie de Paris, a former mint, where blonde-wigged workers of various genders turn out edible versions of sex toys and Santa Clauses.
When Mr. McCarthy installed a big blowup sculpture of one of the sex toys — he coyly titled it “Tree” — in the Place Vendôme, he was slapped by an offended local, opening a window on a reactionary side of French politics usually hidden from short-term visitors. But it’s there, always has been, and Picasso, the insider who was always an outsider, knew this.
All together, you can learn a tremendous amount about him in the Picasso Museum show, not least that he could be a truly terrible artist. Maybe the biggest revelation, though, comes on the top floor, when you catch your first glimpse of a Cézanne landscape Picasso once owned, and instantly sense what’s been missing from the two floors below: focus, concentration, a point of repose, warmth like a light in a tunnel, a fire in a hearth, a vigil lamp in a church.
The comparison of Cézanne to Picasso we see here is of painter to cartoonist, of steady walker to competition dancer. It’s hard even to imagine Picasso painting landscapes — though he did; there’s one nearby — because, judging by this jumpy show, he doesn’t know how to be quiet, to sit there, stop spewing, do nothing, look long. Yet I can imagine him entering the gallery, as we do, nerves keyed up, and seeing Cézanne with a jolt of relief. It’s fitting that after Picasso died at 91, he was laid to rest in the garden of his summer home, a chateau not so different from the Hôtel Salé, but in the South of France, in view of Cézanne’s beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire. Not that he was particularly sentimental about the connection. He was territorial to the end. “Cézanne painted these mountains and now they are mine,” he is said to have boasted. And Paris owns Picasso, or a comprehensive chunk of him, and whatever the failings of the Picasso Museum, that’s just a fact.
The Picasso Museum is in the Hôtel Salé, 5 Rue de Thorigny, Paris; museepicassoparis.fr/en/.
A version of this review appears in print on October 28, 2014, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: With Self-Portrait of a Lifetime, Picasso Returns to Paris Pedestal.