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Monday, December 17, 2012

Showing Picasso

Reina Sophia National Contemporary Art Museum, Madrid, Spain

Here's a question for you. If you were the curator of a major art museum, what artist or artists might you draw from in putting together an important exhibition? What theme might you use? What might you call the show, aside from the ever-present colon in the middle of the title? What artist would you choose? Dürer? Rembrandt? Monet? Cézanne? Matisse? Rockwell? Wyeth? Picasso? Okay, given this list, adding others if you like, which artist's work might you think would be the most difficult to pull together for a major exhibit? It might surprise you, but curators all over the world would quickly choose their pick--Picasso. Certainly Paloma Estaban would echo that sentiment. Paloma was a curator at the Reina Sophia National Contemporary Art Museum in Madrid. And if you've never heard of this museum before, you might want to remember the name. It's where you would go if you wanted to see Picasso's Guernica.

Guernica, 1937, Pablo Picasso
Several years ago (2001), when Paloma began putting together a Picasso retrospective, "Picasso: the Great Series," she sent out some 200 letters to museums and collectors all over the world. She got back only one response. Despite the museum's spotless reputation, Miss Estaban quickly realized you don't just drop people a note asking to borrow their Picasso. Three years of repeated phone calls, travel all over Europe and the United States, and hundreds of personal, one-on-one meetings came and went before she managed to collect the 120 works by the Spanish expatriate for her show. One might think--given the fact that often this 20th century master turned out more work in a single year than many artists have in an entire lifetime--his work, despite his popularity, or conversely, perhaps because of it, would be relatively easy to come by. Not so in either case. It would seem that, unlike the work of many modern artists, people really become attached to their Picassos. Even museums find them hard to part with, even for a few months.

Women of Algiers, After Delacroix, 1955, Pablo Picassso
Add to this the enormous insurance and shipping costs and a Picasso show is not only difficult, but exceedingly expensive to mount. This show drew holdings from the Museum of Modern Art in New York as well as from private collections in Japan, the US, London, and elsewhere in Europe. The show concentrated on Picasso's most prolific period, stretching from 1952 until his death in 1973 at the age of 91. It included several of his tribute pieces such as Women of Algiers, After Delacroix, Las Meninas, After Velázquez, and such original compositions as The Painter and his Model and Shade. Of course, in arranging such a show, it helps to have the painter's son, Claude, on your side too. Miss Estaban even managed to borrow Velázquez’s original Las Meninas to hang next to Picasso's tribute to one of the most influential artists in his life. And, while Picasso has often been criticised for "stealing" the work of the artists he admired most, side-by-side comparisons reveal instead a face-to-face confrontation on the part of the artist with the same creative process as experienced by Velázquez and others. The tributes were pure Picasso with little more than passing resemblances to the work of the ancient masters he worshiped. And inasmuch as Picasso lived most of his life in Paris, this show marked a rare chance for Spaniards to see firsthand the works of the countryman they share with their neighbour to the north.
Las Meninas, After Velazquez, 1957, Pablo Picasso


  1. I've never seen "After Velazquez" before. That's pretty awesome.

  2. The problem in dealing with Picasso is that there is so MUCH of his work. Once you get past two or three of his "periods" and two brands of cubism, the plunge into his "tributes," your eyes begin to glaze over. Moreover, the man lived to be 92 and worked practically from his deathbed. Add to that being probably the most prolific artist who ever lived and it's little wonder even important works like "After Velazquez" can go largely unnoticed.