Review: Picasso Museum Paris

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!).

Picasso Museum Queue

Picasso Museum Facade

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.

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IMG_1924  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.

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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.

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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].

Where Architecture and Photography Collide: ‘Constructing Worlds’ at the Barbican, London

The Barbican, London

The Barbican, London

Works by Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Constructing Worlds exhibition, Barbican

Works by Bernd and Hilla Becher

Constructing Worlds at the Barbican, London

Constructing Worlds at the Barbican, London

The Foreward to the accompanying catalogue for the Barbican‘s exhibition Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern World states that architecture is “the most significant, undeniable and often monumental and enduring trace of our presence on this planet”. In some ways the exhibition, which admirably demonstrates this statement to be true, can be seen as a culmination of the Barbican’s long support for architecture and photography as principal art forms.

Constructing Worlds is the first exhibition of its kind, taking into consideration the collision of photography as social documentary and art photography, and pinpointing them in the portrayal of architecture. It is themed by photographer rather than architect, and hung in a loosely chronological manner. In fact, the Barbican’s exhibition space lends itself perfectly to the exhibition’s curation: a non-generic space for works, a complexity of light and dark, mass and void, makes it particularly resonant space for architectural subject matter, and its compartmentalised structure meant that each room could be devoted to a separate photographer and/or a specific theme in their work.

Berenice Abbott/ Getty/ Howard Greenburg

Night Sky, New York, 1932
Berenice Abbott/ Getty/ Howard Greenburg

Starting with Berenice Abbott’s photos of 1930s New York, a transitional period as old tenement blocks were dwarfed by new skyscrapers, it is perhaps appropriate that the first half of the exhibition is dedicated to American photographers and architects; the rapid modernisation which the USA kick-started in the early 20th century and sent across the Atlantic in the late 20th century and onto the East in the early 21st century is the prevalent theme of the exhibition. The range of works and styles in the show is impressive: from Walker Evans empirically cataloguing wooden churches and abandoned plantation houses in Depression-gripped rural America,  to the brash full-blown technicolour of Julius Shulman’s magazine photos of 1950′s lifestyle,  we are taken around the world and through a century touching down in Italy, Germany, South America, Africa and India, to name a few. We are gifted new perspectives on iconic buildings: we see the Rockefeller Centre still in construction, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s pre-emptive photo of the World Trade Centre’s Twin Towers as ghostly blurred presences, rising in shadowy evanescence from a hazy New York skyline, taken four years before 9/11; and Helene Binet’s sombre monochrome pictures of Daniel Libeskind‘s Holocaust Museum in Berlin, photographed in fragments, which offer a different way of digesting the space, rather than displaying the entire exterior, or a whole room.

Case Study House #22 (Stahl House, Los Angeles, California, Architect Pierre Koenig)

Case Study House #22 (Stahl House, Los Angeles, California, Architect Pierre Koenig).
Julius Shulman/Getty Research Institute/J Paul Getty Trust

Negro Church, South Carolina, March 1936 Walker Evans/ Walker Evans Archive/ Metropolitan Museum of Art

Negro Church, South Carolina, March 1936
Walker Evans/ Walker Evans Archive/ Metropolitan Museum of Art

World Trade Centre (Minoru Yamazaki), 1997, Hiroshi Sugimoto

World Trade Centre (Minoru Yamazaki), 1997
Hiroshi Sugimoto

Jewish Museum Berlin, Daniel Libeskind, Untitled 9, July 1997 Helene Binet

Jewish Museum Berlin, Daniel Libeskind, Untitled 9, July 1997
Helene Binet

Jewish Museum Berlin, Daniel Libeskind, Untitled 1, July 1997

Jewish Museum Berlin, Daniel Libeskind, Untitled 1, July 1997
Helene Binet

Architectural exhibitions are not particularly prevalent on the London gallery scene: there was of course the National Gallery’s Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting earlier this year which offered a specific historical and artistic context,  and the Royal Academy’s Sensing Spaces exhibition at the beginning of 2014, which attempted to bring architecture physically into the museum space. Whether it was successful in doing so is debatable as we ended up with a series of rather confused and confusing installations. There were exceptions, for example Kengo Kuma‘s installation of scented bamboo snaking up through darkness, as Grafton Architects‘ modernist play on light and dark, mass and void, but other installations, such as Diébédo Francis Kéré‘s interactive multi-coloured straws felt a little gimmicky, and others just inexplicable.  In comparison the Barbican seems to have discovered the best way to display architecture in the gallery setting: by exhibiting photographers who interpret the buildings with a distinct and individual style, rather than simply documenting them, they unveil the lived experience of our built world, and through this, some fundamental truths about human society.

 

 

Boundary Space and George Spencer Designs at DECOREX 2014

Building upon the success of Decorex 2013, Boundary Space and George Spencer Designs reunite to deliver what we think is our most exciting stand for Decorex yet. With the  collaboration now in its third year, the Boundary Space team arrived bright and early at Syon House this Thursday with industrial velcro and glue guns in hand, whilst GSD arrived armed with its usual array of sumptuous fabrics from designers Katerina Tana and Rosemary Hallgarten.

Boundary Space created a highly visual design for the walls which impressively display  the wide range of fabrics carried by GSD, which followed a simple but bold tessellation design.  When we arrived at our empty stand on Thursday morning, the task of covering the two walls in 220 upholstered wooden panels seemed daunting to say the least!

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About 6 hours, 5 Pret a Manger sandwiches and 100 complaints about the heat inside the tent later, the walls had been transformed into a smorgasboard of textures, colours and prints; it was time to bring in the trees.

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In August Boundary Space began developing ideas which would display GSD’s extensive range of trimmings in a new and surprising way, when the idea of trimming trees was posed. The challenge to create an installation which would be both artistic and impacting was enthusiastically taken up, and after two solid days of being locked in small room with four branches, 100 metres of silk trimmings, a very hot glue gun, and much trial and error we had lovingly handmade four unique trees themed along the seasons.

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Initial reactions to the stand have been fantastic, and we hope that people continue to enjoy it as the week goes on. As for us, we’re already looking forward to designing the stand for next year …..

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The Serpentine Pavilion

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Every year, the Serpentine Galleries commissions an architect from different parts of the world to create a pavilion in their beautiful setting in Hyde Park. This year’s Pavilion is the 14th structure to be erected on the site, and like the ones before it, stands as an example of the avant-garde experimentalism current promoted by the Serpentine Galleries. Designed by the Chilean architect Smiljan Radic the pavilion is the first to be as much modern and physical as Neolithic and esoteric.

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Smiljan Radic is relatively unknown by Serpentine standards, most of his work having been built in his home country. Most of his Neomodernist creations, best described as enigmatic, can be found in the Chilean countryside: houses with clean lines, enigmatic forms and tactile surfaces that have helped lead the way for Chilean architecture.

“I don’t create forms, I collect shapes.” - Smiljan Radic

As soon as we saw the shell-like structure appear through the trees the expression “papier-mâché” popped into our heads. To be honest, it is quite reassuring that in the digital age you can still meet with architects that are dedicated to model making. In reaching the pavilion we each started to touch and try guessing the material of the shell, which looks roughly unfinished as a regular size architectural model.

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The interior space almost never is one, on account of the many openings towards the exterior landscape that Radic created. You start to wonder if you’re inside a giant egg or a shell that was recently left by its inhabitant. But the interior structure and the pavilion bar rudely remind you that you’re in a manmade structure and the enigmatic feeling fades away, only to revive a couple of minutes later when we explore the undercroft beneath the pavilion. The pavilion is supported by rune-like stones, weighing 120 tons, which seem to have been there long before any Serpentine Pavilion had ever been built. The undercroft communicates in the middle through an opening in the upper structure to the latter and the sky above; linking together on different levels, earth, structure and sky in a symbiotic way. We leave the pavilion wishing that we could have heard the rain while inside or seen the light coming out through its translucent skin during the night.

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“when you look at a folly you have to stop rationalizing” - Smiljan Radic

Radic’s structure juxtaposes two concepts; Oscar Wilde’s story “The selfish giant” and 18th century follies.

On one hand, there is this image of a large, out of scale model with translucent walls that have a handmade feel about them and that look a little bit crude. The actual texture of the pavilion imitates the masking tape Radic originally used on the small model he created, and the fiberglass achieves just that, a rough, unfinished and translucent material. It seems like it just might have been built by a giant.

On the other hand, there are the large roughly cut stones that support the giant’s shell, reminding you of the ornamental look of follies and their sometimes artificially created ancient appearance. As Radic says, this is the joke of the follies, they are ephemeral structures made to look eternal.

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George Spencer Design Decorex Stand

For the second year in a row, Boundary Space were asked to design George Spencer Design’s stand for the Decorex Exhibition. This year the location has moved to the stunning Kensington Palace. The brief was to celebrate the breadth of GSD’s fabric range and highlight the work of labels Zak + Fox and Katerina Tana. The bold design utilises crochet hoops paired with simple black graphics and industrial look furniture.

Initial comments have been fantastic and it has been a pleasure working with the GSD team to design and deliver another stand. We hope it succeeds in reminding the industry of the huge variety that is available from one of London’s great fabric houses.

George Spencer Decorex 2013

Decorex Stand Design

George Spencer Designs Decorex

Decorex Fabric Stand

Decorex Zak and Fox

Beer and the Branding of Buildings

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colour red

industrial interior design

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Branding, especially in the built environment, is often seen as something modern and something corporate, but don’t be fooled. I recently happened to be in Yorkshire with a free afternoon and fell upon the pretty village of Masham.  Masham has many delights, a chocolate box town square and enough vernacular buildings to delight any tourist. But beyond this it is known for being a centre of brewing. Both Theakston and the younger offshoot Black Sheep have breweries here.  The former, Theakston, has been brewed here since 1827.  Aside from what was a fascinating tour, aided by the odd pint of ‘Old Peculiar’, what became apparent was a subtle but persistent branding. Branding simply achieved by painting everything in sight Red.  What I liked about this was that it did not conflict with the architecture or surroundings but instead just struck a note of continuity between the various buildings. Subtle but effective – I think there is a good lesson to learn there!

Distressed Gardens – Petersham Nurseries

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Petersham Nursaries

Country Garden Design

Country Garden Style

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Spring has sprung (sort of!) and, with the RHS Chelsea flower show just around the corner, minds naturally turn to gardens and the landscape. One of the quirkiest places to get lunch in west London is the legendary Petersham Nurseries. This garden nursery-cum-eatery has something of the quality of a film set,  managing to be in a seemingly constant state of stylised distress. I suppose a few years ago people would have referred to the look as ‘shabby chic’  however this term has become tainted with that sort of faked distress which seemed to become available from every high street shop on every type of furniture and furnishing to the point of being trite. So rather than ‘shabby chic’ I would just say that Petersham Nurseries seems to celebrate texture and patina in an exceptionally harmonious and original way.  Definitely worth a trip to Richmond and the river Thames is just a short stroll away.

The Typography of Paris

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There is not too much to say about this. At Boundary space we are pretty big Francophiles and we also love graphics and typography, especially on buildings, so from our recent trips here is a small collection.

Forgive them for they know not what they do (despite being told)

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minute man house Rudolph

Destruction of modern architecture

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There is a book I can’t bring myself to buy: England’s Lost Houses: From the Archives of Country Life .  Why?  Well because it is unfathomable that such beauty, so many man hours and the fruits of so many people’s invention, toil and ingenuity can have been ended so thoroughly and so totally.  However, one would hope that like many of history’s ills we have learned from this. Alas not.  Following my recent interest in American Architect Paul Rudolph I was genuinely shocked to find out that one of his most significant private houses had been destroyed as recently as 2007.  Americas’ collection of mid-century modern houses is an unrivalled body of work and is integral to the story of Modern Architecture, not to mention a continuing source of inspiration.  To me these buildings as a collection rank alongside the worlds other great sites of historic and cultural importance,  I only hope that America can find the legislation and protection for such a valuable national asset.  Contemporary accounts of the demolition and attempts to save the building can be found here:  Wesport Now   and New York Times.  There are also more photos on the Flickr pool here.

Ham House, Geometric Gardens, Beer and a German Sausage

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Ham House Garden Design

Geometric Gardens

Making the most of spring (?) sun, we walked down the river path to Ham House. It is claimed by the National Trust to be one of the finest examples of 17th century fashion and taste.  Although too late to make it inside the house the gardens were delightful and seemed strikingly modern. Having ignored the centuries of fashion that pointed towards the ‘English Landscape Movement’ the gardens are instead a monument to man’s ability to overcome nature. The shunning of 300 years of garden fashion has paid off and I found the gardens as a result seemed fresh and in many ways very modern. – Worth a trip and, should you be in need of a little light refreshment to mull over your thoughts on 300 year old design, I would recommend a short stroll up the river bank to catch the sun at Steins which is an incongruously placed Bavarian riverside beer garden with a delicious menu of Wurst, Erdinger and other such offerings