Picasso and the Masters

Picasso et les Maîtres Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, 8 October 2008 to 2 February 2009 - Paris, Musée du Louvre, 9 October 2008 to 2 February 2009 - Paris, Musée d’Orsay, 8 October 2008 to 1st February 2009. London, National Gallery, 25 February to 7 June 2009.

Pablo Picasso
Yo, Picasso, 1901
Oil on canvas - 73.5 x 60.5 cm
Private collection
© Succession Picasso, 2008

Picasso et les maîtres has been calibrated to beat all attendance records and elicit the most extravagant claims (the biggest exhibition of the year, of the decade, even of the century [1]…). It was clever to come up with the idea of bringing together an artist who draws tremendous crowds with the preeminent names of Western painting in order to maximize visitor numbers, which in fact seems to be the goal of this retrospective. For this very reason, it defies any criticism and would seem to guarantee widespread praise. Should this prevent us from judging its intrinsic value and its degree of success ? Obviously not. After all, a good exhibition does a lot more than just assemble leading masterpieces.

The form as well as the content of the show are debatable. The choice of museography, with its gray walls, though well-adapted for works of very different periods, makes for a profoundly depressing visit, a rather paradoxical result. When leaving the exhibition, the effect of natural light outside, be it that of a rainy fall day, is a welcome sight. Even more troubling : not all of the comparisons are really pertinent, far from it. And when they are, one realizes that many others could have been suggested. The first room, for example, where there are a great number of self-portraits, is not at all convincing. One is left with the impression that any painting representing an artist with a palette would have fit the bill. Rembrandt’s self-portrait from the Louvre, in particular, does not in any way correspond to any of the Picasso works displayed in this room.

With a few exceptions (the Saint Martin and the Beggar by El Greco and Picasso’s Boy Leading a Horse, Psyche’s Toilette after Ambroise Dubois and the large study of Three Women at the Fountain from the Musée Picasso in Paris, some of the comparisons between engravings, etc.), the only indisputable connections are those which juxtapose the copies (always freely inspired) and the original works. At times these even run the risk of seeming contradictory : The Rape of the Sabine Women no doubt alludes partly to Poussin, but it also evokes David just as clearly, the nude soldier at the right in the composition coming directly from this master’s Sabines. In fact, this connection is mentioned in the catalogue but totally overlooked in the exhibition when it could have been easily illustrated with a photograph. Another dubious association is the one in the still-life room (here as in the self-portrait room, the paintings seem to have been chosen at random) showing A Skull with Jug by Picasso (London, Nahmad Collection) next to three skulls painted by Cézanne (Detroit, Institute of Arts), a formal study on spheres devoid of any symbolic meaning. Here Picasso finds his inspiration directly in the 17th century vanitas rather than in the painter from Aix-en-Provence. Why is the Douanier Rousseau presented while Matisse is completely ignored ? Why are there no Pointillist works, even next to the “copy” of Returning from the Baptism by the Frères Le Nain, painted in a style very close to Seurat ?

No one will ever answer any of these questions. Did Picasso see a certain painting shown here alongside, did he really find inspiration in it or is the comparison simply meant as a suggestion ? None of this is mentioned in the exhibition as if no explanation were needed. The catalogue is not much more explicit as the works exhibited in the show are simply reproduced, without being numbered, and obviously without any entries [2]. Furthermore, as the essays are extremely brief, the work resembles a collection of illustrations, lamentably superficial, all the more so as approximations abound. Many of the paintings presented could not have been familiar to Picasso for the simple reason that they have been re-discovered only recently such as The Water Glass and Rose on a Silver Platter by Zurbaran or Still-life with Lemons and Oranges by Luis Meléndez. As for Agnus Dei, also by Zurbarán, what is it doing in this exhibition ? No work is presented for comparison, and even the catalogue itself offers no suggestions. It might have been shown in connection to Man with a Sheep, but this work is not displayed. As a matter of fact, none of Picasso’s sculptures are presented either, when much could have been said about them. One wonders what the curators worked at besides making sure that the most prestigious loans possible were made available, either by deploying their best diplomatic skills or rather their sharpest business talents as Philippe Dagen explained superbly in Le Monde. The idea that Picasso found inspiration in the masters, that he took in what he saw in museums or books to create his personal pantheon and then used this material to create his art is as old as the hills. Finding a new way of approaching this idea thus demanded a real, in-depth, look and serious art history work. One leaves the exhibition and closes the catalogue without having learned anything new about Picasso’s art.

Once again, the question of whether some exhibitions are worth organizing and paintings deserve to be continuously carted about needs to be raised. When Picasso painted after a master, he was often looking at a postcard. A good picture would suffice to understand the links between his canvases and the original models. Was it therefore truly necessary to ship Goya’s Maja Desnuda ? The Prado refused to send The Meninas as it is its most precious painting, and will never leave the museum. But the Maja Desnuda is just as important and it is really questionable that the painting ever left Madrid for purely iconographic reasons and no solid scholarly basis. Visitors to the Prado expect to enjoy the work which in fact makes sense only when seen next to the Maja Vestida. In the last room, the relation between the Maja, Titian’s Venus (Prado), Manet’s Olympia and the Picassos shown in connection thus becomes tenuous indeed. These Reclining Nudes have more in common with Ingres’ Odalisque and the woman on the right in Turkish Bath. Laurence Madeline, curator for the Ingres-Picasso exhibition in Paris in 2004, had grasped the subject much better after all. The Paolo and Francesca by Ingres from Angers, the David and Bathsheba by Cranach from Berlin are essential works for these museums. What was the purpose of bringing them to Paris and exhibiting them flatly, with little visibility, like the paintings up for auction at the Hôtel Drouot [3] ? Murillo’s Young Beggar, barely back from Atlanta, has left the Louvre again to be displayed alongside a painting that has little in common [4]. Accompanying it, inevitably there is the Infante which now seems to have been definitively ascribed to Velazquez and not to his workshop, although this attribution has never been really justified. It is also unfortunate that Manet’s Olympia was taken down from the wall at the Musée d’Orsay. At least Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe stayed put, as did Women in Algiers at the Louvre, with complete studies offered on these two masterpieces. The exhibition at Orsay is in fact the most successful of the three with beautiful staging produced by Hubert Le Gall and a hang which reflects careful thought.

Finally, the conclusion is self-evident : the theme lends itself more to the subject of a book - still to be written - than to an exhibition, as juxtaposing old masters with Picasso’s works can be understood just as well by looking at illustrations as standing in front of the actual paintings. Nonetheless, we would not discourage anyone from going to the Grand Palais. As long as visitors manage to get in given the 10,000 (!) expected daily, they will catch a glimpse of a considerable number of magnificent masterpieces, from Cranach to Picasso. Some of these were even dug up in out-of-the way places : when visiting Washington, who ever thinks of going to Dumbarton Oaks ? Its Greco is exceptional. Let us hope that the RMN (Réunion des Musées Nationaux) will at least break even with this retrospective in terms of budget expenses. This would allow it to pursue truly innovative exhibitions, and more intellectually satisfying ones even if attendance is significantly lower, such as the one devoted to Victoria and Napoleon III in Compiègne close to Paris, a total anti-thesis to this Picasso exhibition (to be reviewed shortly).

Visitor Information : Paris, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, 3, avenue du Général-Eisenhower 75008 Paris. Phone : + 33 (0)1 44 13 17 17. Open daily except Tuesday 10.00 to 22.00. Thursday, to 20.00 (18.00 24 and 31 December). Admission fee : 12 € and 8 €. With Louvre and Orsay : 26 €.

Galeries nationales du Grand Palais Website

Didier Rykner, vendredi 10 octobre 2008


[1] All of these expressions were used by commentators. There was even “the exhibition of all exhibitions” !

[2] This borders on simplification as there is no historical background and no bibliography, simply the photograph, the technique used, the size and its location.

[3] Not to mention the risks this might mean for the Ingres work : the marks of the frame could show on the canvas. We hope the necessary precautions have been taken.

[4] The Louvre told us unequivocally that this painting, which we said (see article) would be going to Bilbao for the exhibition The Young Murillo next year, had not been requested by the museum. And yet this establishment has publicized the retrospective by means of this painting. In fact, its presence in such a retrospective would be much more pertinent than was the case at the Grand Palais here.

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