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Visit from a Genius

What do we really know about Picasso anyway?


Overheard one morning last week: Three Richmond ladies are discussing what they hope to take away from the Picasso exhibition that opens at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on Feb. 19.

“I want to love Picasso,” one says.

“I want to like Picasso,” her friend counters.

The third woman is more realistic: “I just want to know Picasso.”

Collectively, they make a point. Since word leaked out last summer that the museum — still catching its institutional breath from a well-received grand reopening and expansion in May — would present some 150 works by the modern genius from the collection of the MusAce National Picasso in Paris, many of the local culturati were hit with a hard truth: Picasso may be the most formidable single figure in modern art history, forged by his revolutionary break with centuries-old tradition of realism in Western art, in-the-gut power of such iconic works as “Guernica,” and an infamous private life that included almost as many relationships with women as Henry VIII. But what do we really know about him, especially here in Virginia? Modernism isn't at the top of our collective cultural consciousness.

So when Alex Nyerges, the museum's director, swung for the fences in landing the $2 million exhibition, he was also — probably unwittingly — plugging a programming gap in what the venerable, 75-year-old institution has offered visitors during the course of at least two generations.

True, gifts from A¬¨bercollector Paul Mellon placed impressionist and post-impressionistic works (including Picassos) in a handsome permanent installation. And power couple Sydney and Frances Lewis pushed their fellow Richmonders, some kicking and screaming, into the deep end of the contemporary aesthetic swimming pool when they gave their impressive collection of mid- to late-20th-century pop art, photo-realistic and conceptual works to the museum in the 1980s. But an introduction to Picasso — the larger-than-large hinge on which the 20th-century art world shifted — has gone unexplored in any major way. For a full Picasso experience locals had to trek to midtown Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art or fly to Paris. That is, until now.

[image-2] “Picasso: Masterpieces from the MusAce National Picasso, Paris,” in the American East Coast of a seven-city, international tour, will present more than 150 works culled from the largest collection of Picassos in the world. If not a stash rich with his seminal works (such as “Les Demoiselles d'Avignon,” the breakthrough painting that heralded cubism and never looked back), the comprehensive exhibition should provide a spectacular overview — an elegant crash-course even — of a career that spanned eight decades. The formation of the MusAce National collection is a story in itself, its holdings culled from Picasso's personal collection, something to which he gave considerable thought for at least 70 years.

In 1912, when Picasso was 31 and approaching millionaire status from sales of his works and a canny business sense, he began to stash away systematically five major paintings a year as well as family portraits, self-images and most of his sculpture. The superstitious Picasso also began an annual tradition of holding onto works he created during the week in which his birthday fell, Oct. 25.

But when Picasso died in 1973 he left no will, and the French version of the Internal Revenue Service lunged at his estate, including this self-curated mother lode of work. His heirs pushed back and in lieu of paying a potential $65 million in inheritance taxes, the family donated one quarter of the collection — that which fills the MusAce National — to the state. Curiously, Picasso, a native Spaniard who spent the overwhelming part of his long life in and around Paris, had placed relatively few works in French public collections. Meanwhile, for decades many of his greatest works had been plucked up by American collectors both private and public. The Virginia Museum's permanent collection includes “Jester on Horseback,” a sensitive 1905 oil painting he executed during his rose period (1904-'06).

Assembling the MusAce National wasn't easy. Picasso enjoyed living and working in handsome, old, chateau-like dwellings. Once they were filled with his art, he'd vacate and move on to the next address. It took scholars and officials more than a decade to track down, catalog and curate the prodigious collection. The Picasso museum was finally opened in 1985 by President FranAois Mitterand, after two other presidents and five ministers of culture had worked to create the institution. “Give me a museum and I'll fill it up,” Picasso once said. Posthumously, they did and he came through.

[image-3] Those who've visited the MusAce National have enjoyed seeing Picassos in an environment of which he would have approved, a handsomely renovated 17th-century residence, the Hotel Sale (named for a salt merchant). It's undergoing a renovation, which makes the current tour possible.

Picasso created more than 30,000 works in his career — he averaged at least one piece a day during the course of his lifetime. In the first review he received, in Paris in 1901, a critic marveled that the then-teenaged Picasso was known to turn out as many as three works a day. The MusAce National houses the largest collection of Picasso in the world: 203 paintings, 158 sculptures, 16 collages, 29 relief paintings, 88 ceramics, 30 sketchbooks and some 3,000 drawings and prints.

According to those who have seen the traveling exhibition, curated by Anne Baldassari of the MusAce National, it doesn't feature the artist's iconic works or strive to make a specific point. It does, however, provide a broad survey that embraces every period of the artist's life. Picasso began by mimicking the impressionists and post-impressionists, and then evolved into his blue and pink periods. Soon thereafter cubism sprung forth and this epoch was followed by classical and surreal phases. A number of the works shown here are based on Picasso's many wives and lovers. Art critic D.K. Row, in the Seattle Times (published in the city where this exhibition made its first of three American stops last year), wrote that these portraits of key figures in the artist's life “help crystallize both the man and the artist.”

These should be welcome words to those, like the woman overheard last week, who seek to know” Picasso.

But what of those who want “to love” him? Seattle critic Row seems to think we should get ready for a big embrace: “Picasso may not be the latest thing in the art world today. But whether you're an art world insider or layman, whether you dislike the way he conducted his personal life, you'll be in awe of his art after seeing this show.”

“Picasso: Masterpieces from the MusAce National Picasso, Paris” will run Feb. 19-May 15 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Admission is $16-$20 for nonmembers. For information, go to http://vmfa.museum/Picasso.

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