Places for Sculpture: Musée Picasso, Paris

Nasher Sculpture Center
Jun 1, 2015 4:00AM

By Catherine Craft, Associate Curator, Nasher Sculpture Center

Last fall, on what would have been the artist’s 133rd birthday, the Musée Picasso opened its doors after an extensive, often fraught, five-year renovation. The museum is home to a rich and wide-ranging collection of what might be called “Picasso’s Picassos” – the artworks that he kept in his possession throughout his famously long and productive life. When the artist died in 1973 at the age of 91, the works of art in his estate numbered in the tens of thousands; just five years earlier, the French government put in place a law to encourage the preservation of its national heritage by allowing heirs to pay estate tax through the donation of artworks. With the state receiving first choice of paintings, sculptures, and works on paper when Picasso’s estate was divided among his heirs, the resulting collection provides an unmatched glimpse into the creative fervor and intellectual restlessness of the artist’s life and work.

The site of the Musée Picasso is a magnificent seventeenth-century mansion in the Marais quarter known as the Hôtel Salé. Declared a historic monument in 1968, its grand staircase and rich stone and plaster details make it a worthy destination in itself. Although the building has no direct connection to Picasso, its location – near the Centre Pompidou, under construction in the early 1970s, and art galleries of the Marais – made it an appealing choice for government officials. Between fulfilling the obligations of restoring a historic building and creating galleries suitable for the display of artworks, the Musée Picasso would not open its doors until 1985. Faced with a wealth of great artworks, visitors nonetheless confronted surprisingly cramped quarters and a layout of rooms that was none too clear. In 2010, the museum closed again, for another renovation which included an increase in gallery space. By moving offices offsite, the museum was able to more than double the available exhibition space, which now occupies the basement to the attic –five floors altogether.

The works on view for the reopening are still only a small portion of the museum’s collection, but there is more enough to provide a rich introduction to Picasso’s work. To begin with, there are the works that Picasso refused to sell, from Still Life with Chair Caning, his landmark collage of 1912 that helped to usher in a lifetime of artistic experimentation with everyday objects, to the monumental, melancholy classicism of The Flutes of Pan (1923). Although his early masterpiece Demoiselles d’Avignon is in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, one room at the Musée Picasso brings together sketches and studies related to that seminal work, providing an intimate and thrilling look at the artist’s searching permutations of human anatomy. The top floor, with its enormous exposed wooden beams, is reserved for Picasso’s collection of works by other artists, allowing viewers to see what shaped and informed his art. Among the treasures on this floor are a rigorous, luminous landscape by Paul Cézanne; a fervent and obsessive self-portrait by the young Joan Miró; a brashly controlled image by Henri Matisse of his daughter Marguerite; and canvases by Renoir, Modigliani, Rousseau, and Degas, among others. In this illustrious company of fellow modernists, however, is also a group of African masks and sculptures, Picasso’s great inspiration early in his career. Among these is his Grebo mask, from Côte d’Ivoire, the cylindrical, protruding eyes of which are said to have inspired Picasso’s Cubist rethinking of human anatomy.

The Musée Picasso’s collection has its weaknesses, and its strengths. There are relatively fewer paintings from the artist’s early Rose Period, for example, but an abundance from the later 1920s and 1930s, and also from the last decade of his life (particularly with the more recent donation from the estate of his widow, Jacqueline Rocque Picasso). There are as well many drawings, sketches, and prints, but most enticing, perhaps, are Picasso’s sculptures, many of which he held back from the market. As presented in the reopened Musée Picasso, sculpture emerges as the most revelatory, vital, and exciting aspect of his work. Given the fragility of their varied materials, the museum’s presentation of these works is especially important, as they are objects that will likely not often travel to other institutions.

The sculptures span most of Picasso’s life as an artist. The basement galleries, each devoted to one of Picasso’s studios and the works created there, include a tall, slender 1906 wooden carving with touches of black and red paint that depicts his companion Fernande (also the subject of the Nasher’s Head of a Woman (Fernande), 1909); although it suggests the young artist’s strong interest in Gauguin, it possesses a totemic power all its own. Upstairs, in galleries devoted to Picasso’s inventive exploration of Cubism, the true highlights are the ingenious relief constructions he made from cardboard, sheet metal, and other materials to bring his experiments in painting into tactile reality. Photographs of Picasso’s studio show that he kept these objects – often representations of violins, guitars, and other musical instruments – around him, often combining and recombining them to create three-dimensional still lifes.

In addition to the Cubist reliefs, the museum also shows outstanding examples of Picasso’s sculptures in materials and techniques that resonate with works in the collection of the Nasher Sculpture Center. The Nasher’s 1931 Head of a Woman, inspired by the artist’s relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter, displays a raw, primitive power found in works from the same series at the Musée Picasso, in which the facial features suggest male and female genitalia.  Flowers in a Vase (1951-53), a focal point of the Nasher’s 2012 exhibition Return to Earth: Ceramic Sculpture of Lucio Fontana, Fausto Melotti, Joan Miró, Isamu Noguchi, Pablo Picasso 1943-1963, startles through its bold combination of ceramic and plaster, but would be perfectly at home in the company of such works at the Musée Picasso as Little Girl Skipping Rope (1950) and The Goat (1950), both of which use basketry to build out the larger forms in addition to clay objects, plaster, and other materials. Such works give a great sense of Picasso’s resourcefulness, energy, and humor, and implicitly argue that sculpture was both an essential site of his art and a continuing source of enlivening inspiration. Likewise, the Nasher’s Head of a Woman (also called Head of Jacqueline) of 1957 provides a fitting introduction to the Musée Picasso’s extensive collection of folded and painted sheet metal sculptures – a medium that he used to play with the changing points of view initially developed in his paintings – but also to the many representations in the museum collection of Picasso’s second wife, the longest-lasting of his many relationships.

The renovated Musée Picasso unfortunately still has its flaws, namely that the galleries remain somewhat small and cramped, and do not flow into one another in a clear way. There are curious juxtapositions and dead-ends, although this occasionally makes for unexpected and pleasant surprises – such as finding the bronze sculpture Pregnant Woman (a cast of which is also in the Nasher’s collection) tucked away by itself in a tiny basement gallery under the stairs. When the museum is full of visitors – as it has consistently been since its reopening – the galleries fill up quickly, and the new café cannot even be entered. But considering the artworks that lie within, this popularity is no surprise, and is likely to continue.

Planning a visit in advance is highly recommended, and online reservations can be made on the museum’s website.

Other museums and galleries in the Marais: 

Centre Pompidou 

Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme 

Galerie Marian Goodman

Galerie Perrotin  

Galerie Thaddeus Ropac 

Galerie Daniel Templon  

Nasher Sculpture Center