Paris Museums: Picasso Museum

For over 4 years, we have been waiting to visit Paris’ Musee Picasso since it was closed for massive renovation—a renovation that was so massively over schedule and over budget that the museum’s director was fired.  This trip, we finally got our chance. It was well worth the wait—despite the fact that we had to go twice, since the first floor was closed in preparation for a new exhibit on our first trip and the second was closed (after the first had been reopened) on our second trip.

We began our visit with a guided tour (in English) of some of the museum’s many highlights. The tour began with what we think was too much time spent on the 350-year history of the admittedly lovely building and the 30-year history of the museum (which is almost totally attributable to a government provision that allowed Picasso’s heirs to donate art in lieu of estate taxes).

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This resulted in a collection of almost 5,000 objects, including documents, letters, photographs and more than 260 paintings and 200 sculptures. On one hand, this reliance of gifts was instrumental in creating a museum that may not have otherwise have happened. On the other, it appears to have contributed to something of an imbalance of his work (at least of what was on display when we visited). While his cubist periods are quite well represented, his blue and rose periods were each represented by only a single painting. And few of the paintings exhibited were among his best known.

That said, the tour was helpful, especially when combined with the posted descriptions and a supplemental walk through the museum to spend additional time in some galleries and with individual pieces. Although we had already a fair understanding of Picasso’s history, the museum began by emphasizing:

  • The collaboration between Picasso and Braque;
  • The debt they both owed to Cezanne, who pioneered the move toward open and geometric shapes; and
  • Picasso, whose father was an artist and an art teacher, was initially trained in a classical style and while his style evolved continually throughout his career, he did make periodic, brief returns to his classical routes.

Picasso’s initial evolution from a strict classical style began with the depression into which he fell after the suicide of a close friend, Carlos Casagemas. This led directly to one of his most haunting paintings and to his blue period, which began in 1901. Paintings in this period not only relied on somber blue tones, but also portrayed subjects who were poor, despondent and very thin. Then in 1904, came the beginning of his rose period in which he employed brighter red, orange and pink colors and earth tones and portrayed more upbeat subjects including clowns and harlequins (which had a complex meaning for Picasso, including multiple changes of costumes and a need to disguise one’s true feelings).

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This led to an increased interest in primitive designs and African tribal art in around 1906, and especially, a move away from a representation of what one sees, to what one thinks or understands about a subject. Then came experimentation with two-and three-dimensional mixed media work such as collages that incorporated materials such as newspaper, wood and in at least one case, to a cigar box to bring depth to his work.

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By 1910, Picasso and Braque had evolved further into proto- or analytic cubism, where works focused largely on consciously deconstructing subjects into underling geometric elements that represent views from different angles and the use of a more limited range of colors. Then came the maturation or evolution into synthetic cubism in which the geometric shapes became more generalized and less pronounced, fading increasingly into one another. This period also saw a greater incorporation of additional media into his work in an attempt to more seamlessly integrate the real world and the representational world of a painting.

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By the early 20s, Picasso temporarily moved back to more classical, more representational styles as shown in a gallery that was devoted largely to Picasso’s portrayals of his first wife, Olga Khokhlova—until, in 1929, when a breakup was pending, he created one of his most poignant cubist renderings of his wife and the intense pain that each was feeling.

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The first floor, which focused primarily on the 1930s, and this his relationships with and paintings of Marie-Therese Walter and Dora Maar, was closed during our first visit, mandating a return visit to fill in a critical gap in Picasso’s career and the evolution of his art.

The second has no floor, which is displayed as it was for the museum’s October 2014 reopening, has no interpretive materials to help us identify transitions and discontinuities in Picasso’s work through the 1940s and early ‘50s. Luckily, our guide helped provide some of these. This floor largely reflected his work during a period of war: The late 30s, which just ended, saw a civil war in his native Spain and then, the 40s saw the outbreak of World War II and the early ‘50s, the Korean War. Picasso, who hated the killing, suffering and barbarism of war (and who supported the French resistance) showed his feelings in in his work: deformed bodies, funeral masks, dark colors (grays, blacks and army greens) and in deformed metal-cast skull that he kept in the center of his studio.

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Not all of his portrayals of these horrors were so generalized. His masterpiece Guernica (which is in Madrid’s Reina Sofia museum, which we plan to visit later in the trip) was a direct indictment of the aerial bombing of a Basque town during the Spanish Civil War. And, as we did see at the Picasso Museum, he created another direct indictment of the U.S’s use of overwhelming forces and modern weapons against women, children and unborn babies during the Korean War.

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By the mid-1950s and ‘60s, peace had returned, his personal life was relatively harmonious and his palette and his subject matter lightened. He created bright and lively paintings, fun sculptures and whimsical collages.

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We also stopped in a small gallery of self-portraits from very different stages in his career: 1908, 1938 and especially interestingly, a portrait of the artist as a young man in 1972—one year before his death.

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Then, we climbed to the third floor which contains a number of works from Picasso’s own collection: some of which he painted himself, some which he bought or traded because he liked then or they had an influence on the ways in which he himself approached art, and some that were gifts from other artists. His own works, at least those on display, were generally bright and upbeat.

Those from other artists say much about what he liked—and from what he had learned. While this art represents a broad spectrum, one would expect to see African masks and a number of works by his stylistic forerunner Cezanne and by his Cubist colleague Georges Braque. While there are also works by artists including Deran, Rousseau, Miro, the greatest representation (in addition to Braque), was of work by Renoir and his friend/rival, Henri Matisse.

Matisse - MargueriteBraque – Bottle, glass and appleBraque – Guitar, terrifying statueCezanne – La Mer a l’Estaque

 

Our return visit, to the previously closed first floor, picked up in the late 1920s when he and his wife Olga went to the Normandy beach in Dinard where he met, and began an affair with Marie Therese-Walter. While the museum does not have (or at least was not showing) any of the paintings of her (some of which are among our favorites), it does show some of this many “bather” works, in which he deconstructed the human anatomy and reassembled pieces (in colors and textures that appeared more like stone than flesh) in contorted, almost grotesque ways. It also explained and showed some of the compositions he created from sand, wood and other materials he collected along the beaches.

In the late 30s, he and apparently some of his friends and dealers, felt than he had gone too far toward abstraction (as with hjs of paintings of men with guitars, mandolins, pipes and so forth), and he began to retreat to somewhat more realistic depictions. By the early 40s, when he was branded a “degenerate artist” by the Nazis and an “anarchist” by the French, his mood and palate darkened, his images reverted toward primitivism and he began creating images of materials including torn paper.

The exhibit then skips to the 60s where he experimented with new media and, by the end of the decade, had entered his and “expressionist phase” with more flamboyant, erotic images and then the much looser style and brighter colors of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

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