Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Picasso et Les Maîtres

Truthfully, trekking out to the Grand Palais in the middle of the night right after we got back from Lille, Ghent and Bruges was pretty much the last thing in the world I felt like doing. But with the exhibit, Picasso et les Maîtres, closing the next day, this was my last time to see what would surely be an incredible collection of works by Picasso and the great painters that inspired him. Of course, as it turns out, our 2am ticket to the museum made the experience that much more interesting. We had arrived (relatively) early at the Grand Palais off the Champs Elysées hoping in vain to get into the museum a little earlier, thus go home for some much needed sleep a little earlier. What we did not expect was the massive crowds of several hundreds of people waiting in line in the freezing cold, all sacrificing precious hours of sleep to catch the exhibit before it closed. When we were finally allowed into the museum at just after 2:00, there was already a small crowd gathering around the entrance, waiting for the 2:30 entrance. Inside the museum, the halls were crowded and it was a serious challenge trying to get a glimpse of most popular paintings from behind a wall of 6-foot tall strangers. Working the room so that I could see all the paintings efficiently became a strategic and tactical effort. I later read that over 18,000 tickets had been sold for the 3 nights during which the Grand Palais would be open. Where did all these oh-so-cultural people come from? Only in Paris, I suppose.

The show itself was breathtaking, not only in terms of the richness and scale of the collection of works on display, but also in the manner in which the paintings were presented. It was truly a curatorial masterpiece, to be able to get hold of these incredible works of art all at the same time, and to display them in such an organized yet thought-provoking fashion. The exhibit was split into ten rooms, each organized by theme. Each display was preempted with a short reflection devoted to the events and influences which shaped Picasso's works in the room we were about to enter, and what the phase represented in terms of Picasso's career. These blurbs were usually complemented with quotes by the artist himself:

"God made what did not exist, and so do I...He even made painting. So do I."

"Painting is nothing but signs"

The exhibitions' curators displayed each thematic collection as a mélange between Picasso's influences and his own works. As a result, viewers were often able to extract the specific sources of inspiration out of Picasso's paintings. This is especially clear in the hall devoted to Picasso's "variations", which was one of my favourite rooms. I found myself walking back and forth multiple times between the original masterpieces of "les maîtres" and the many interpretations of Picasso, each time picking up on the different ways in which Picasso used the painting to "create" his own works. To me, it almost seemed like a systematic process: he would deconstruct and dissect the painting, analyse it, play around with different focuses within the painting, reinterpret it, reinterpret it some more, and finally reinvent the painting entirely. In some cases, he would put together influences from various works, layering them on top of each other, adding his signature use of texture and scale, to make it his own. In others, he would extend the frame of the painting, including into his interpretations what he envisioned to be taking place outside of the original tableau. Bearing in mind Picasso's mastery of different artistic styles and techniques, the end result is more often than not magnificent.

I would never label myself to be a die-hard Picasso enthusiast - in all honesty, there are numerous Picasso pieces which I have difficulty connecting with, which I fail to understand Picasso's intentions for, or which I simply find aesthetically unpleasing. Yet what continues to amaze me is his expert command of such a diverse range of techniques and styles. While I cannot claim to appreciate Picasso's portrait of Dora Maar, there are paintings from his Blue Period and Cubist Period which I found to be absolutely mesmerizing. I am fascinated that a single painter can extract from me a variety of such strong emotions, and that, I guess, is a testament to Picasso's incredible vision and artistry.

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