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Paris museum shows Picasso as 'cannibal' of masters

3 min

Pablo Picasso's kinship with the great masters of Western painting, his lifelong urge to celebrate, rework and subvert their art, goes on display in a major exhibition opening Wednesday in Paris.

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More than 200 works, from Picasso himself to El Greco, Velazquez, Goya, Titian and Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Delacroix or Manet, come together for the show entitled "Picasso and the Masters", drawn from public and private collections worldwide.

Through dozens of sketches, still lives, nudes, portraits and early cubist works, the exhibition at Paris' Grand Palais maps the links between the 20th-century Spanish artist and his illustrious forebears.

"Of all modern and avant-garde painters, Picasso is the only one who carried the history of painting on his shoulders to this extent," said Anne Baldassari, head of Paris' Picasso Museum and one of the curators of the show.

Portraits of the masters greet the visitor at the outset of the show, "a brotherhood of peers that carried Picasso along", she said.

A child prodigy, who mastered academic painting and draughtsmanship by the age of 14, Picasso (1881-1973) spent his adult life revisiting and measuring himself against the great masters.

"This is not about saying Picasso is the son of so-and-so, or the grandson of another," explained Baldassari. "He is constantly criss-crossing all of the history of painting at once."

Picasso's so-called variations -- he spent years obsessively reworking past masterpieces, sometimes dozens of times -- are amply on display.

Five of his 58 interpretations of "Las Meninas" by Velazquez form a centrepiece of the show, while two partner exhibitions, at the Louvre and Orsay museums, are devoted to variations on Delacroix and Manet.

The artist's fascination with his forebears, seen by some as a form of "cannibalism", was not always well understood.

For Baldassari, "cannibalism is not about chewing up paintings. To be a cannibal is to absorb the power of your kin or your enemies. It is a gesture of love, of respect."

The show celebrates works Picasso is known to have studied and loved -- based on thousands of archive documents, postcards and prints recovered after his death -- and whose composition, themes and colours fed into his art.

In inventing cubism, records show how he used the study of light and shadow in Zurbaran's work, or the segmentation of space in El Greco.

A dark room, built around Zurbaran's "Agnus Dei", a primal image of sacrifice, brings together a group of brutal Picasso still lives -- sheep skulls and bones, painted just before the outbreak of World War II.

Sometimes the link is more subtle and the viewer is left to map the correspondences between ideas and motifs, the curve of a woman's body or a matador's sword.

Baldassari points to the powerful echoes between the composition of El Greco's "Saint Martin and the Beggar" and Picasso's 1905 work "Boy Leading a Horse", a prized loan from New York's Museum of Modern Art.

In the show's final, breathtaking room Goya's masterpiece "La Maya Desnuda" hangs side-by-side with Manet's "Olympia" and Titien's "Venus Delighting Herself with Love and Music", in counterpoint to half a dozen giant Picasso nudes painted in the final years of his life.

Half of the works on show came from the Paris Picasso Museum, with masterpieces loaned from a dozen museums including the Prado in Madrid, MoMA, the Gemalde Galerie in Berlin and London's National Gallery.

Organisers describe the feat of bringing so many masterpieces together in one place -- including "La Maya Desnuda", which last left Spain in 1930 -- as a "miracle".

The 4.5-million-euro (six-million-dollar) budget for the show, which runs until February 2, is one of the largest in French history, with almost a fifth going to insure the paintings, together worth an estimated two billion euros.

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