Picasso et les Maîtres

October 21, 2008By Heidi EllisonArchive

Riffing on the Masters

Picasso’s “Still Life with Sheep’s Head” (below, © Succession Picasso, 2008) interprets the incredible pathos of Goya’s original with rather less subtlety but plenty of drama.

Yes, of course, Picasso was a genius, but there is such a thing as Picasso fatigue, although you would never know it by the crowds lining up to see the just-opened “Picasso and the Maîtres” at the Grand Palais as the city is taken over by Picasso mania.

With the Musée Picasso set to close next June for lengthy renovations and its masterpieces already on a lucrative round-the-world road trip, the Grand Palais, the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay have taken up the slack with a coordinated exhibition entitled “Picasso et les Maîtres.”

The idea is to show how Picasso was inspired by the works of his predecessors. The mega-show at Grand Palais has, among over 200 works, his take on one of the all-time great paintings, Velázquez’s “Las Meninas,” while the Musée d’Orsay presents around 40 works – paintings, lithographs, etchings, engravings, drawings, ceramics, paper cutouts, sculpture – all inspired by Edouard Manet’s famed 1863 painting “Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe” (which, it turns out, he painted in the studio, not in the open air, as one might have thought).

Picasso’s great energy and playful inventiveness come to the fore in the two smaller homages to past masters. It is always fascinating to see the way he obsessively reinterpreted, deconstructed and distorted paintings that interested him. No two of his interpretations are alike (some are very, very different, such as the lithographs in the Orsay show), and he takes all kinds of liberties with form, style and content.

In Manet’s “Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe” (itself inspired by Giorgione), a naked woman sits with two clothed men in the foreground, while another, scantily clad woman bends over to pick flowers in the background. In Picasso’s versions, the men might be naked as well, or both of the women. In one, Picasso himself, held by a naked woman, is shown painting while a naked couple makes love in the background. In another, one of the men is a self-portrait of the artist and one of the women has the face of his wife Jacqueline.

The Louvre has chosen to show Picasso’s riffs on Eugène Delacroix’s “Les Femmes d’Alger” with around 20 paintings and drawings. Once again, the original work gets taken apart and put together again in every imaginable way, from a painted Cubist treatment to the lovely sketches in a notebook.

In the Grand Palais exhibition, the connections between paintings by Picasso and the other works on show are not always clear – after all, most painters try their hands at portraits, self-portraits, nudes and still lifes, without necessarily copying each other. And it seems positively aberrant that the original of Velázquez’s famed “Las Meninas,” of which Picasso made dozens of “copies,” is shown only in a small projected image hanging up high near the ceiling. Obviously, the Grand Palais was unable to obtain the original painting, but it could at least have put the image of it where visitors could actually see it and compare it to Picasso’s version.

The Grand Palais show is nevertheless a must-see: who could object to being treated to the sight of some of the world’s most thrilling paintings, by the likes of Rembrandt, Cranach, El Greco, Goya, Velázquez, Ribera, Zurbarán, Titian, Cézanne, Manet, Van Gogh and more, not to mention many brilliant (as well as not-so-brilliant) works by Picasso.

In his early years, Picasso was forced to copy the masters as part of his training as an artist. Later in his career, he was obviously paying homage to great painters of the past when he obsessively reinterpreted works that fascinated him, but he also seems have been trying to upstage them by showing how far beyond them he – the greatest modern painter – had gone. Heidi Ellison

ratpMusée du Louvre: Hall Napoléon. Métro: Palais Royal. Tel.: 01 40 20 53 17. Open Wednesday-Monday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. (until 10 p.m. on Wednesday and Friday). Admission: €9 before 6 p.m, €6 after 6 p.m. on Wednesday and Friday. Through February 2. www.louvre.fr

ratpMusée d’Orsay: 1, rue de la Légion d’Honneur, 75007 Paris. Métro: Solferino. RER: Musée d’Orsay. Tel.: 01 40 49 48 14. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m., until 9:45 p.m. on Thursday. Admission: €9.50. Through February 1. www.musee-orsay.fr

ratpGaleries Nationales du Grand Palais: 3, avenue du Général Eisenhower, 75008 Paris. Métro: Champs-Elysées Clemenceau. Tel.: 01 44 13 17 17. Open Monday, Wednesday, Friday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. (until 6 p.m. on Dec. 24 and Jan. 31), Thursday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Closed Tuesday. Christmas and New Year’s Day. Special hours October 25-November 5 and December 20-January 4: daily, 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Admission: €12. Through February 2. www.rmn.fr

© 2008 Paris Update

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