Picasso et les Maitres Grand Palais approche ironique du Burlington Magazine
Burlington Magazine, December 2008 Number 1269 Volume CL
Vainglory at the Grand Palais
Anyone passionate about European painting could do worse than visit the Grand Palais in Paris for an exhibition that contains an astonishing number of masterpieces from Titian and El Greco to Manet and Van Gogh, borrowed from collections on both sides of the Atlantic. They are interwoven throughout the successive rooms of the Grand Palais with works by Picasso representing nearly all the phases of his art from the precocious académies of his student days to the prolific outpourings of his old age. For visual allure and variety there is nothing to challenge this luxuriously upholstered blockbuster, currently packed with visitors until 11 pm each night. Why then does it arouse such strong condemnation on several counts?
The exhibition is an extensive illustration of the work of Picasso seen in relation to the old masters who inspired him. This takes several forms, ranging from general affinities to direct borrowings, from hommages to variations on a theme. Some of the juxtapositions will momentarily delight the innocent visitor who is unfamiliar with Picasso's combative yet insouciant attitude to his predecessors. Those who have not been to St Petersburg or Milwaukee, to Hakone or Prague, may savour generous loans from these cities. On the level of appetite alone, this is a feast. But early satiation may lead to nausea. For anyone even remotely familiar with Picasso's œuvre there is little here that will take them unawares, much that tells them what they already know and many moments of bewilderment. The show is thematically arranged for fashionable ease of digestion so that we can comfortably assimilate the fact that Picasso, like his predecessors, also painted portraits, nudes, still lifes and figure compositions. Again, we are shown that, like Chardin and Cézanne, Picasso also painted apples and pears but in a different style. We are told that at times he adopted a bright palette and at others a more sober one, a vertical or a more horizontal format. We are reminded that he too liked to paint people in exotic clothes (Goya's Condesa del Carpio has been shuttled from the Louvre and Picasso's Fernande in a black mantilla has been flown in from the Guggenheim, New York, to make this point patently clear); that he was influenced by the painters of his native country; that nineteenth-century French painting was his most fruitful scavenging ground; and that he extended all these traditions. There is nothing particularly wrong with this save that, as one ploughs ahead, it exposes the exhibition's trite scholarly aspirations, its superficial juxtapositions and greedy opportunism. Picasso is both simpler and more complex than this show allows and he is frequently at his most eloquent in his inventive departures from the old masters rather than his obvious similarities. This is apparent in two small satellite shows of his variations on the Déjeuner sur l'herbe (an excellent display marred by designer-decor at the Musée d'Orsay) and on Delacroix's Femmes d'Alger in a skimpy bay in the Louvre. In these, the exploratory focus is infinitely more telling than the windy platitudes at the Grand Palais. There, one pairing might appear in any number of sections depending on which theme is being drawn to our attention. Some alliances are inexplicable. Van Gogh's L'Arlésienne (Orsay) is a portrait of a pensive, unhappy middle-aged woman seated at a table; Picasso's
Portrait of Lee Miller in Arlésienne costume (1937; Musée Picasso) is a slightly sinister humoresque depiction of the beautiful American photographer; nothing in mood or conception connects them; each however has her hair tied in the Arlésienne manner. One searches in vain for a deeper curatorial point and consequently the individual impact of neither work is felt. This is art history as stamp collecting.
In spite of the extent of the show and its peacock display of masterpieces tiresomely abundant as one reaches the end there are areas scarcely touched on, the prime one being sculpture, just glimpsed in relation to the early académies. Crucially if briefly influential figures, such as Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec, are underplayed; Burne-Jones, Beardsley and Whistler are nowhere to be seen. It can also be argued that three of the trophy loans of the show Titian's Venus with organist and Cupid, Goya's Maja desnuda and Manet's Olympia have only the slenderest connections with the late nudes of Picasso in whose company they find themselves. Many arms must have been twisted to secure such works and one can only sympathise with the museum curators hoodwinked into agreeing to lend to this house built on sand. This is vainglorious curating in which a tenable concept has been swallowed up in a boastful exercise in gigantism.1
1 Picasso et les Maîtres, curated by Anne Baldessari, runs in Paris to 2nd February. In a much modified form and with a different catalogue it can be seen at the National Gallery, London, from 25th February to 7th June.
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