"Picasso And The Masters": In Summary – An Article By Michael Damiano

Le Matador, Pablo Picasso, 4 octobre 1970, Huile sur toile, 145,5 x 114 cm, Musée Picasso, Paris

“Picasso and the Masters” closed on February 2nd in Paris. The show compared works by Picasso side-by-side with the classical and modern works that might have inspired them.

The exhibition, located at the Grand Palais with parallel exhibitions at the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay, enjoyed commercial success despite scathing critical reviews. According to the closing press release, the exhibition attracted 783,352 visitors or 7,270 visitors per day to the Grand Palais. Meanwhile, the Musée d’Orsay and the Louvre calculated that they received 450,521 and 300,000 visitors respectively to their shares of the blockbuster show. Despite the behemoth cost (€4.3 million) of mounting the most expensive exhibition in Paris’s history, it takes little arithmetic to reveal its stunning income. Full price tickets to the main exhibition at the Grand Palais ran €12 (the reduced youth price was €8). 90,000 exhibition catalogues were sold at €50 each (this alone covered more than the initial cost of the exhibition). Additionally, the press service has reported sales of 67,000 exhibition albums, 14,000 copies of the show’s children’s book and 5,900 DVDs. Despite the financial downturn, the public willingly opened their wallets for the highly publicized show.

Nevertheless, as the cash came in so did vitriolic reviews. The French press lambasted “Picasso and the Masters” as a cynical business venture. No more generous, the English-speaking press derided the comparisons drawn between works as superficial.

“Picasso and the Masters” at the Grand Palais

The reviews of Picasso and the Masters have been too harsh. Although many of the critiques were on the mark, critics’ unqualified condemnations were overzealous. They have overlooked the degree of the ambition of the curators in embarking on the project. That the show missed the mark on some points should not surprise anyone.

That said, the exhibition was hardly without flaws. Much of the top floor (the first which the visitor passed through) left one baffled or disappointed. The first room comprised mostly self-portraits by many of the “Masters” who figured in the exhibition. One expected this amuse-bouche to lead into stimulating dialogue between Picasso and his predecessors in the second gallery of the exhibition.

Not so. The first duo of paintings seemed a grim indicator of what was in store. The curators had placed Saint Martin and the Beggar by El Greco next to Picasso’s Boy Leading a Horse. After a concerted effort and consulting with some of the other visitors around me, I concluded that my first impression of the pair of large vertical format paintings had been correct. The paintings shared one trivial similarity: they both depicted a frontal view of a horse alongside a male nude. Wary that my effusive excitement for the show would be completely derailed I continued through the hall.

I found little relief. On the opposite wall the curators had lined up a couple more pairings of works with similar subject matters. One of these, Cézanne’s Female nude standing and Picasso’s Large nude standing, revealed little except that the compositions and titles bore obvious similarities. More fruitful comparisons certainly exist between the French innovator and the Spaniard whom he fascinated.

A bit further on, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes’ Young Women by the Sea showed no stylistic affinity to Picasso’s La Coiffure. Baffled, I examined the two paintings—which both include a woman’s hair dressing—and found myself forced to conclude that the paintings held only subject matter in common. These were not the stimulating comparisons I had hoped to find.

Disheartened, I shuffled to the next room bumping shoulders with camera toting tourists and notably more fashionable Parisians. Here I found relief in the first interesting pairing of the exhibition. El Greco’s The Visitation next to Picasso’s The Burial of Casagemas of his “blue period”. This was what I had been hoping for. The paintings shared neither composition nor subject matter, but the artists had employed the same treatment of the elongated figures’ clothing producing a similar mystical tone.

I moved on, somewhat encouraged. The following galleries covering primarily portraits provided neither grave disappointments nor revelations. The curators devoted the last room of the top floor to some of Picasso’s interpretations of two classical masterpieces. One cannot ignore the value of seeing Poussin’s Abduction of the Sabine Women next to Picasso’s takes on this theme. The live comparison allowed the nuances of Picasso’s interpretations to stand out.

Some of Picasso’s interpretation after Las Meninas occupied the rest of the room. Velazquez’s original masterpiece was missing, unsurprisingly.

The curators devoted the following two rooms to still lifes and bodegones. Nowhere did Picasso more clearly demonstrate his connection to the Spanish tradition than in his still lifes. The comparison between Picasso’s pre-Cubist bodegones and Zurbarán’s austere Still life (Pots) and Cup of Water and a Rose on a Silver Plate, spoke to this.

The second room devoted to still lifes proved to be, perhaps, the most successful of the exhibition. Dark still lifes of skulls, rotting meat and worn-out tableware flanked Zurbarán’s Agnus Dei. Concerned with death and the passage of time, the typically Spanish paintings in the room shed light on the origins of Picasso’s preoccupation with and treatment of these themes. Thematically related paintings by Cézanne and Chardin reminded me that the Spanish do not hold a monopoly on these themes and that Picasso’s influences are complex and impervious to simple categorization.

With renewed confidence in the exhibition, I began to move through the final rooms dedicated to portraits of women. Radically different works by Picasso, such as the realistic Olga, the Fauve-esque The Absinthe Drinker and the Cubist Portrait of Lee Miller in Arlésienne, highlighted Picasso’s stylistic multiplicity. Works by Van Gogh, Degas, Manet and Ingres served as points of comparison.

The show’s final gallery clearly intended to be the grand finale. Thirteen large format female nudes encircled the visitors. Seeing Titian’s Venus Amusing Herself with Love and Music, Goya’s La maja desnuda and Manet’s Olympia hung on the same wall punctuated by large format Picassos deserved at least a nod of tacit approval for the curatorial feat. However, the coherence of the compilation seemed uncertain. Picasso carried out all the nudes displayed in this part of the exhibition in Mougins during the final years of his life. They hardly figure as a fundamental portion of his prolific production. Hanging them besides these icons of Art History appeared contrived. Furthermore the specific connections between the compared works regressed to the trivial: composition and subject matter. Perhaps the curators purported to investigate iconoclasm across centuries creating counterpoint between three inflammatory paintings of classical art—La maja desnuda, Olympia and Ingres’s Odalisque in Gray (a monochromatic version of The Grand Odalisque)—and Cubism, the most dramatic rupture of the Western pictorial tradition. If this was the goal, it was confounded by the fact that Picasso painted these nudes long after the shock of Cubism had worn off.

In general, the show failed to keep up with the hype. However, it provided some stimulating comparisons and a spectacular ensemble of works.

The Parallel Exhibitions

“Picasso/Manet”, housed by the Musée d’Orsay, exhibited Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe alongside scores of Picasso’s interpretations of it. Having all the works in one place allowed the visitor to appreciate the degree to which Picasso obsessed over Manet’s iconoclastic work. The precise dates revealed that from one day to the next Picasso might create two nearly identical works changing only the perspective from which a face was seen. In addition to the paintings, the three rooms dedicated to “Picasso/Manet” included preparatory sketches, drawings, ceramics, photos and texts making the exhibition a comprehensive look at this episode of Picasso’s production.

“Picasso/Delacroix” put on view Delacroix’s Women of Algiers with Picasso’s takes on it. This much smaller exhibition consisted of nine paintings and about ten preparatory sketches. The comparison with the original and between the variations themselves proved illuminating.

“Picasso: Challenging the Past” at the National Gallery

A more sober variation on “Picasso and the Masters” opened at the National Gallery in London on Wednesday. The 60-work show comprises works only by Picasso that demonstrate his preoccupation with the Western masters who came before him, especially works from the National Gallery’s permanent collection. Many works have migrated from Paris to London for the exhibition. “Picasso: Challenging the Past” runs through June 7th, 2009.

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Published in: on February 27, 2009 at 10:55 am  Leave a Comment  
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