CULTURE ‣Alejandra Álvarez on Picasso Celebration: The Collection in a New Light?
By Alejandra Álvarez, Senior Editor, Multi-Arts
Everybody knows Picasso. He exists in the shared imagination of art lovers, consumers, and even ordinary individuals who have come across any type of art. Loved by many. Admired by many. The world can’t get enough of Picasso.
When I learned that the Musée National Picasso-Paris had plans to honor the 50th anniversary of Picasso's passing (April 8, 2023) through a unique exhibition curated by the distinguished British designer Sir Paul Smith, my curiosity was awakened. Recently, I had the chance to visit the exhibition, which is nearing its conclusion (on August 27, 2023).
If I were to select a term to encapsulate the essence of the exhibition, "charming" would be my choice. The exhibition unfolds within a series of distinct rooms, each uniquely themed to correspond with different periods in the life of the Spanish artist. As you traverse the space, you are met with a vibrant beginning – a grand room adorned with magazine covers that Picasso playfully transformed. This exuberant entrance is then followed by a sepia-hued chamber, which serves as a visual journey through Picasso's artistic evolution starting in 1906. It was during this period that his tireless exploration of perspective led him to embrace the groundbreaking style of cubism, a movement that would forever define his legacy by reshaping how reality was depicted in art.
The transition from the cubist space leads you to a room suffused with pink tones, a sanctuary dedicated to Picasso's deep fascination with the female form. An intriguing omission here is the absence of reference to his female "muses," those influential women who were instrumental in his creative process. It is well-established that Picasso drew inspiration from the real women in his life, a fact that paved the way for one of his most renowned masterpieces, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon." This theme resonates further as you encounter studies related to this iconic painting within the pink-themed chamber.
Continuing your journey, you step into a gallery highlighting Picasso's experiments with collage art. This leads seamlessly into his "blue period," marked by introspective and melancholic pieces. The blue-hued chamber invites you to delve into Picasso's emotional landscape, offering a glimpse into his personal sorrow following the loss of a dear friend. This somber ambiance eventually yields to a burst of color and vivacity in the subsequent room. Here, Picasso's affinity for the world of theater takes center stage, revealing how his connection to this realm was ignited by his first wife, Olga Khokhlova, a ballet dancer who abandoned her dance career so she could become his “muse”. Notable within this section are portraits of Picasso's son, dressed as the Harlequin and Pierrot.
Moving forward, the focus shifts to Picasso's biomorphic creations, juxtaposed with works by feminist artist Louise Bourgeois, creating an interesting dialogue between their artistic expressions. The journey continues into a space drenched in darkness, loaded with intense emotion. Within this room, Picasso's perspective on war unfolds, with poignant echoes of his monumental work "Guernica." Paintings that reiterate the themes of this iconic monochrome masterpiece, presently residing in Barcelona, grace the walls, inviting contemplation.
The atmosphere then lightens as you transition into a more classical phase of Picasso's artistic journey. Two consecutive chambers beckon, each shedding light on Picasso's connection to the animal world. The first delves into his fascination with bullfights, while the second showcases intricate studies of various bird species alongside larger sculptures. A designated enclave pays homage to Picasso's innovative ceramic works. Within a collection of porcelain plates, a burst of vibrant ceramics emerges, infusing a sense of vibrancy and life into the space.
Following the vibrant space, a room adorned with stripes takes center stage. Within this room resides the renowned 1937 portrait of Dora Maar, a figure of immense significance in Picasso's life. Strangely, the exhibition seems to overlook the pivotal role this female presence played in shaping Picasso's artistry. Remarkably,
seminal works like "Guernica" owe their existence to the perspective of this politically engaged photographer, who not only introduced Picasso to the realm of photography but also exposed him to the nuances of black and white imagery. Dora Maar and Picasso shared a romantic partnership for a period, yet the artist's unrelenting pursuit of creative eminence seemed to eclipse her significance. Unfortunately, Maar remained in the shadows of the Spanish genius, denied the fame and recognition she deserved.
Ironically, in the absence of their physical presence, Dora's incredible artistic talent has been acknowledged. Celebrated institutions such as the MoMA in New York, the Tate in London, and the Pompidou in Paris have dedicated entire exhibitions to this once-forgotten artist.
Adjacent to this gallery, a room showcases Picasso's fascination with indigenous cultures from Africa and Oceania. This space proudly displays a selection of his personal artifacts, complemented by one painting by Nigerian artist Obi Okigbo. Progressing further, another room unveils Picasso's studies of Édouard Manet's celebrated work "Déjeuner sur l'herbe." A dedicated chamber follows, paying homage to his iconic striped T-shirt, adorned with an array of photographs capturing the artist.
As the exhibition nears its conclusion, rooms emerge featuring Picasso's famous posters and his final paintings, crafted during his later years as an elderly man. The culmination transpires within a room submersed in a warm yellow hue, where a strikingly naive self-portrait by the artist captivates the observer, bringing the journey to a contemplative close.
After reaching this point of the exhibition, my anticipation grew for an additional room – a room that would candidly explore Picasso's “muses”, a space unafraid to confront the coexistence of his genius and misogyny within its walls. Drawing upon my background in art history, I've come to understand that Picasso was far from the charismatic figure we often envision; in reality, he subjected his female companions to various forms of abuse. His own granddaughter, Marina Picasso, published a book detailing the suffering inflicted upon their family by the Spanish virtuoso, owing to his self-centeredness and lack of empathy. A telling quote attributed to Picasso, "Every time I change wives, I should burn the last one. That way I’d be rid… You kill the woman and you wipe out the past she represents," encapsulates his disregard for the women who shared his life.
Surprisingly absent within the exhibition is any acknowledgment of his relationship with the 17-year-old Marie-Thérèse Walter, whom he dated when he was in his 40s, such an omission, in today's context, could easily detonate cancel culture.
I believe Sir Paul Smith did an outstanding job as the curator of the Picasso collection for this exhibition. The presentation is airy, engaging, and despite its length, it avoids overwhelming the viewer. Smith's creative approach is deserving of applause. However, as a young individual deeply involved in the art world out of passion, I fervently hope for a future where esteemed institutions like the Musée Picasso collaborate with curators audacious enough to confront and acknowledge the less savory truths that form part of an artist's narrative. As spectators, we need to get comfortable with the idea that a great artist may not always be a great person. Our perception of Picasso cannot remain static, frozen in time as it was half a century ago. The times have evolved, and we owe it to both contemporary and historical artists to embrace the complete story.
Considering that the exhibition's title is "Picasso Celebration: The Collection in a New Light," my expectation was that this new light would shine on the more uncomfortable facets of his legacy. The absent room requires a voice to bring its contents to light. While Picasso undeniably stood as a formidable artist, he wasn't a commendable person. The mantle of creative genius should not offer immunity from accountability. What lessons are we imparting to the generations of budding creatives to come? Why do we shy away from the truth? It's time to reconsider the narratives we uphold.