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"Picasso Celebration: The Collection in a New Light"

A Picasso Celebration in Paris: Paul Smith Paints the Work of the Master in a Contemporary Light

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Pablo Picasso’s death (April 8, 1973) and the Musée National Picasso-Paris is presenting the exhibition “Picasso Celebration: The Collection in a New Light” timed to the occasion. The museum invited the British designer Sir Paul Smith to fill the role of artistic director of the show, working alongside curators Cécile Debray and Joanne Snrech. Comprised of the museum’s own collections—which include over 5,000 artworks and a total of nearly 200,000 archival items—“Picasso Celebration” surveys the artist’s entire creative oeuvre from drawings and sculptures to paintings, collages, ceramics, and more, displayed in an engaging presentation complete with vibrant scenography and an accompanying selection of artworks by contemporary artists like Mickalene Thomas and Guillermo Kuitca.

Installation view, “Picasso Celebration: The Collection in a New Light,” directed by Paul Smith; © Vinciane Lebrun/Voyez-Vous, courtesy of the Musée National Picasso-Paris.

“By bringing his exceptional collection back to the heart of the museum, this new hanging is a playful and joyful invitation to rediscover all of Picasso’s creative fields, painting, sculpture, ceramics, and graphic arts, through the sharp and mischievous eye of a great contemporary creator. This exhibition marks the ‘Picasso Celebration’ at the Hôtel Salé in a masterly way and prefigures the Musée Picasso of tomorrow,” said Debray.

Known for his artful use of color and unexpected details, Smith’s direction is a key facet of the show, with parallels drawn between his own creativity and that of Picasso, including a shared love of objects and a fondness for mise-en-scène. Smith devised multiple conceptual spaces of the many rooms of the museum (the 17th-century structure home to the former Hôtel Salé). He looked at various aspects of the artist’s work, from stylistic phases and specific muses to the exploration of new mediums, completed by corresponding details like colorful wallpapers, painted stripes, and other installed elements specific to the show.

Installation view, “Picasso Celebration: The Collection in a New Light,” directed by Paul Smith; © Vinciane Lebrun/Voyez-Vous, courtesy of the Musée National Picasso-Paris.

Arranged in a loose chronology, Smith’s creative concept for the exhibition suggests certain phases of creativity and the influences, inspirations, and thoughts behind the works on view. It examines the life and practice of Picasso from the early 1900s into the 1970s, spanning love, loss, war, and more, highlighting aspects of his work that connects to the present. This is achieved by works in dialogue with contemporary artists like Thomas, Kuitca, Obi Okigbo, and Chéri Samba (found dispersed through various sections of the show), who expressed a willingness and excitement for delving into Picasso’s oeuvre in a new light, relevant to their own creative practices. 

In one room, assemblages and collages exist in an installation of stripes of printed wallpapers. In another, works from Picasso’s Blue Period—a time in his life following the death of a friend in 1901, which continued until 1904—can be found hanging in a room shadowed by walls painted a pensive navy blue, accompanied by the words of the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who noted, “for the space of one year, Picasso lived this painting, wet and blue like the humid depths of the abyss, and pitiful.” Meanwhile, a room devoted to photographs of Picasso wearing a striped Breton shirt (an image that became a popular representation of the artist worldwide) is paired with the detailed paintings of the Congolese artist Samba.

Installation view, “Picasso Celebration: The Collection in a New Light,” directed by Paul Smith; © Vinciane Lebrun/Voyez-Vous, courtesy of the Musée National Picasso-Paris.

Nearby, walls covered in white ceramic plates give way to a selection of the artist’s own plates—colorful, glazed discs painted with playful markings making up various faces and figures. One alcove is plastered with graphic posters from past Picasso shows through the years, where the original works hang, framed, on top. And elsewhere, a statelier gallery shows a suite of large-scale cubist paintings, surrounding central sculptural works cast in bronze. Another space depicts the artist’s work made during the Spanish Civil War, where his figures became distorted and grotesque—like the monumental Guernica (1937), which can be found adjacent to the works of Thomas, who found links in her exploration of current happenings like the Black Lives Matter movement. The story is concluded in a room dedicated to the later years of Picasso’s life and creativity, which saw him producing more than 350 works in his final days, including the featured self-portrait Le Jeune Peinture, made in April 1972, during the last year of his life.

Installation view, “Picasso Celebration: The Collection in a New Light,” directed by Paul Smith; © Vinciane Lebrun/Voyez-Vous, courtesy of the Musée National Picasso-Paris.

“I think what is interesting is that by choosing me to design the display, the museum gets a different, more lateral approach to showing the master’s work,” said Smith. “Hopefully, we’ve managed to put together more of a visual experience, in a way that is interesting for younger audiences and audiences that are not very knowledgeable about the work of this great master. It’s a more spontaneous and instinctive approach.”

Presented with support from Farrow & Ball, Phillips, and Natasha and François-Xavier de Mallmann, “Picasso Celebration” is on view now through August 27 and comes accompanied by a full exhibition catalog, which is available for purchase.

Installation view, “Picasso Celebration: The Collection in a New Light,” directed by Paul Smith; © Vinciane Lebrun/Voyez-Vous, courtesy of the Musée National Picasso-Paris.

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