By William Wolf


A trip to Paris by my wife and me was in the nick of time to enjoy the power of Picasso dramatically evident in an a trio of unusual art exhibitions in three different museums, all reflecting the same theme. The event scheduled between October 8, 2008 and February 2, 2009, engendered huge interest. The concept embraced Picasso paintings inspired by some of the great masters. The Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay and The Grand Palais were jammed with museum-goers intrigued by the idea and eager to see what the fuss was about and attempt to make it to all three shows.

The event, titled “Picasso and the Masters,” was an unprecedented collaboration involving some 200 Picasso works. The project drew some accusations of dumbing down, but the public showed enthusiasm that outweighed any nays.

At the Louvre, we were fascinated by Picasso’s riffs on the famous “Women of Algiers” works by Delacroix. One could make the comparisons and study how Picasso applied his inventiveness to converting the subject to his own style.

At the Musée d’Orsay, Manet was the particular springboard, with his “Picnic” the inspiration for take-offs by Picasso.

The largest show was at the National Galleries of the Grand Palais, which has a rich history in the exhibition of art in France. Picasso commented generously about how he was inspired by the masters as he developed his own art, so the theme makes sense. There are instances where one could look at comparisons and feel the curators were stretching the point. But largely the theme was solidly backed up by comparative works shown side by side.

Picasso drew inspiration for his portrait painting from, for example, El Greco, Rembrandt, Goya, Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin. Nudes also fascinated him, and one could see how works by Titian and Goya, for example, triggered ideas for Picasso’s own explorative paintings that broke fresh ground.

At the Grand Palais ten rooms were devoted to examining various facets of Picasso’s debt to the masters. Of course, one can be cynical about what Picasso achieved. The works of the masters are arguably much more satisfying than what might be dubbed Picasso rip-offs. I was reminded of experiences going to the theater when a classic by Shakespeare can be made almost unrecognizable by a director eager to put his stamp on the play.

Still, there is great fun in seeing how Picasso’s genius enabled him to take an idea and bring it to dizzying heights of his own. The memorable show was provocative in that sense. One got to be re-introduced to great art by the masters as well as to enjoy anew the works of Picasso. I still treasure a visit to see Picasso’s enormous paintings, displayed practically wall-to-wall at the Palais des Papes in Avingon in 1970, all done in Picasso’s last years. There was great strength in them.

I would like to point out in connection with the visit to the Musée d’Orsay that just experiencing the remarkable building again is always a particular pleasure. Having converted the old railway station into a palace of art was a great accomplishment.

Also, any visit to the Louvre continues to be a joy in itself. One marvels at how the glass pyramid entrance now looks so much an accepted part of the landscape. And one always wants to see the Mona Lisa again. It has now been ensconced with special security as it continues to draw crowds. An amazing feature continues to be evident. If one stands far to one side of the portrait the famous smile seems to be directed at you. If one goes to the other side of the painting, the smile still seems to be directed at you.

After seeing the Picasso exhibit at the Grand Palais, we wandered over to another part of the Palais to take in an exhibit of the German expressionist artist Emil Nolde (1867-1956). Some 90 paintings by Nolde were on display, as well as 70 watercolors, engravings and drawings. Through this exhibit one could see why Nolde aroused such passions. Although he tried to get along with the Nazi regime, he was censored and his work was part of the 1937 Nazi “Decadent Art” show, but Nolde has garnered an increase in prestige in recent years. Included at the Grand Palais was his renowned “Life of Christ” grouping--stark, brazen interpretations that were bound to create controversy.


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