I recently visited the Picasso Museum in Paris which has just re-opened after a problematic and controversial 5 year renovation. After so long a wait, the museum opening is the highlight of the 2014 French cultural calendar. It finally opened on 25th October to mark Picasso’s birthday.
Marred by controversy and delays the renovation was rapidly becoming an embarrassment for France. The intervention of the French Minister of Culture Aurélie Filippetti and the notorious sacking of Baldassari, the long-time Director, were the denouement of an increasingly farcical plotline. The renovation and expansion, which should have taken 2 years, overran by 3 years and went 30 million Euros over budget.
Such a buzz surrounds the museum’s long-anticipated re-opening that queueing starts early in the morning and continues throughout the day. There is an atmosphere of excitement, with the line snaking around the enclosed Baroque courtyard (on a mercifully sunny day!).
The museum is housed in the 17th century Hotel Salé one of the grandest and most beautiful old Parisian townhouses. It is in the Marais, a historic quartier of the city which was untouched by Hausmann’s renovations, and is one of the few areas to retain a feel of the old Paris, with several grand aristocratic buildings from the 17th century clustered around the original medieval street plan. The building has always seemed an unusual choice to house Picasso’s works. His oeuvre looks strikingly contemporary even today, yet it is housed within one of Paris’ grandest historic buildings. This provides an interesting backdrop to a body of work which at times draws on the past, and at other times disruptively breaks from it. The building, like Picasso’s work itself, presents multiple facets and shifting personalities, with sudden, dramatic transitions from Roland Simounet’s modernist white boxes to the opulent grandeur of the historic building, and in particular the Hotel Salé’s masterpiece: the central stairway.
The renovation set out to bring the museum in line with new regulation, hugely increase the exhibition space and alter and improve the flow of visitors through the building. One of the main priorities was also the careful and thorough restoration of the 17th century building.
After 40 minutes of queuing we got inside. Upon entering you are struck by the very minimalist, modern and open feel of the interior space; and the dramatic contrast with the embellished 17th century façade. Every work in the museum is given generous wall space, able to be appreciated individually as well as in the light of the other works in the room. The curation of the exhibition is another aspect of it’s re-opening which has stirred up some controversy. The collection is vast, comprising of 5000 works, and very broad, with examples of work from Picasso’s entire working life, ranging from preparatory sketches to finished masterpieces. Given to the museum by Picasso’s family, the collection comprises an interesting selection of works: those Picasso could not sell and those he did not want to part with. In this sense too it is wide-ranging, from his most to his least accomplished work, and gives a real insight into how an artist works and the process behind a finished masterpiece – this was Baldassari’s vision.
Baldassari, one of the world’s leading Picasso scholars of whom Picasso’s son is a staunch supporter, was given the task of curating the inaugural exhibition, in spite of being sacked as museum director. She has chosen a thematic curation, exploring thematic and stylistic ties present across Picasso’s entire body of work. This is often interesting and engaging, but occasionally obscure and confusing, particularly given the lack of any accompanying explanatory text.
From the first room the chronology jumps wildly, from Picasso’s earliest years painting at the age of 14, to works composed at the end of his life. Initially confusing, this takes some time to get used to. Apparently (we never saw it) there is an brochure available which explains the curation, but it is not made obvious. Without any guidance, we were groping in the dark trying to understand the curation and what it was trying to achieve. This reaction, however, may be precisely Baldassari’s intention. A visitor on a quest for understanding is far more engaged and active than one who has been told what to think or understand.
In some rooms the arrangement is more obvious, for instance, the room dedicated to preparatory sketches for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, or the room of self-portraits. Other rooms are more ambiguous. However, while we were not always able to pinpoint the theme precisely, there was, evident in each room, a pervasive ‘mood’ or an aesthetic resonance which lent some coherence to an often disparate collection of works.
With no contextual information provided, Picasso’s works are viewed in a vacuum. They are not shown in the context of artistic movements or historical events, but only in the context of eachother and the artist himself. The building emphases this. With no contextual relevance, and neither old nor new, it sets Picasso’s work in a timeless isolation; located in the great cultural tradition of France, but without historical reference point. The only glimpses of cultural context come when you reach the top floor. Here are a few rooms housing paintings by other artists – part of Picasso’s personal art collection.
M. Le Bon describes the museum’s collection as an “ocean” and here at last is an anchor. These works interested and influenced Picasso, and suddenly much of what came before makes sense in a broader art historical context rather than a purely aesthetic one. These were Picasso’s great masters – there are works by Matisse, Derain, Renoir, Jean Miro etc. Pieces by Picasso which show direct influence from one of these works are hung alongside their counterpart. Here, finally we see Picasso, not isolated in a vacuum, but as an active, engaged participant in an exciting artistic dialogue and ongoing narrative; a participant responding, reacting and carrying forward.
Having some prior knowledge of Picasso before visiting the museum certainly helps. This is not the place to learn dates or facts about his life, but rather to gain an understanding of his artistic force. You do not learn about him, but you do learn him. Baldassari draws together threads, which are woven into a complex, energetic, chaotic, relentless artistic mind. This is not a chronological archive of Picasso’s life – a chapter in a closed book – this is a journey through the mind of the artist; this is Picasso himself, and here he is alive.
Perhaps what Baldassari’s curation really tells us about Picasso’s collection and artistic production, is that it cannot and should not be neatly ordered and contained. It is a whole lifetime full of ideas and random moments of artistic inspiration. In this sense the collection suits the building. It jumps from old to new and locates itself in neither, it is unpredictable, surprising and contradictory. It seems timeless. This space embodies Picasso and the multiple facets of his life and work. As Le Bon says: “La chance du musée, c’est de montrer Picasso sous toutes ses facettes. Il faut se laisser plonger dans cet ocean”. [The museum has the opportunity to show the many facets of Picasso. Let yourself dive into this ocean].