Saturday, November 27, 2010

Picasso Visits Zurich, Again

The Picassos with Swiss artist Gottard Schuh outside the Hotel Baur au Lac
Last weekend I visited the current exhibition at the Zurich Kunsthaus, entitled simply, Picasso. It will surely prove to be unique for the 21st century, for it was co-curated by none other than Pablo Picasso. That’s right, the Pablo Picasso. No, I’m not crazy and yes, I know he is long dead.

In 1932 the Kunsthaus became the first ever museum to host a Picasso retrospective. Museums were supposed to exhibit the works of established dead artists, not of living artists like Picasso, who was 50 at the time, and clearly much alive. The Kunsthaus, very much at the cutting edge, went one step further and asked Picasso to curate the exhibition himself. He selected over 200 paintings; so many, that the Kunsthaus had to temporarily remove its permanent collection.

Picasso arrived in Zurich with his wife, the former Russian dancer from Sergei Diaghlev’s Ballet Russes, Olga Khokhlova, and their son Paolo and they checked in at the very plush Baur au Lac, then, as now, one of the world’s greatest hotels. They had, to all intents and purposes, the appearance of a good bourgeois family: Olga enjoyed the shopping on the Bahnhofstrasse; ten year old Paolo was bored; they went sailing on the lake and enjoyed the beautiful September sunshine; they enjoyed a meal of boiled ham in the beautiful Belvoir restaurant. But Picasso was a regular attendee at the balls and fancy dress parties of Europe’s old aristocracy, a fixture in the Parisian café society of Jean Cocteau and Coco Chanel, a man who slept with nearly every woman who took his fancy and, furthermore, a persistent frequenter of brothels. He had recently fallen in love and had began a secret affair to sleep with his 17 year old model Marie-Therese Walter. But being a good catholic, Picasso refused to contemplate a divorce.

Head of Sleeping Woman
Sometimes an exhibition makes history, instead of simply recording it. This one certainly did. Some of the paintings were still belonging to Picasso and were for sale, but in the oppressive economic climate of the time this aspect of the project was, unsurprisingly, a disappointment; only one painting was sold – to the Kunsthaus itself. Regarding the other works, the Kunstmusem had acquiesed in Picasso’s choices and managed to borrow from the various collectors those works that were in private hands, arranging transportation and security, insurance and the safe return of all works to the owners. Two catalogues were published including a number of interpretive essays and a series of reading by a number of experts was arranged. The press was well informed ahead of time and the opening was well attended and widely reported across the continent. The left-wing press complained of wasting funds on decadent art in a time of public economic hardship. The local psychoanalyst and self-styled oracle Carl Gustav Jung, visiting the exhibition proclaimed the works to be an indication of schizophrenia and condemned all of modern art. (He had previously condemned James Joyce’s novel Ulysses.) Despite Jung’s judgement, or maybe because of it, the number of visitors to the exhibition broke all records. The Kunsthaus had taken a risk, had done something that no museum had ever done before, and though it wasn’t immediately apparent, it had created a new trend. In New York and Paris, London and Amsterdam, museums began to exhibit the works of major contemporary artists, accompanied with a grand opening, press releases, catalogues, and readings. Zurich’s Kunsthaus had shown the way.

Visitors at the exhibition Picasso
And so we return to today. The current exhibition commemorates the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Kunsthaus by reviving a part of Picasso’s original 1932 exhibition. Nearly one third of the original works, chosen by Picasso himself, have returned to Zurich. In this way, Picasso, though long dead, is still co-curator of his own exhibition, together with the main curator, the Kunsthaus’ very much living Tobia Bezolla. This makes it a unique opportunity to appreciate the work sof the 20th century’s greatest artistic genius, chosen by himself.

Girl in a Chemise
It is a breathtaking experience, and a reminder of simply what a magnificent painter Picasso was. How could the man, with his philandering and posing, have produced so many works of such extreme beauty? There are no landscapes, no animals and few trees; a couple of flowers in vases, lots of guitars and, again and again, the human figure, in particular, the female figure, puny and sad, gigantic and proud, mutilated and abstract. Even his earliest works, from the late 19th century, possess hints of the genius within. By 1904 his genius had already become apparent. I stood before Girl in a Chemise, and realised how useless words are – the painting, with its flattened surfaces, says everything there is to say. The correct initial response to these works has to be silence. A new, radical chapter in the history of art had started. Within a short while the experiment with cubism commenced, an abrupt intervention in art history. Thereafter Picasso is completely free and there follows primitiveness, collage, monumental figurative portraits, the colourful and entirely flattened guitars and mandolins and fruit vases, the phallocentric portraits and, by 1932, his almost abstract surrealist works. Those who today obsess about innovation and creativity in the business world should pay a visit to the Kunsthaus to witness what innovation and creativity mean. The Picasso exhibition continues until January 2011.

Woman with Yellow Belt


  1. Super review of the exhibition, thanks.

    You have to love the language the critics used in 1932. "The left-wing press complained of wasting funds on decadent art in a time of public economic hardship." And "the local psychoanalyst and self-styled oracle Carl Gustav Jung, visiting the exhibition proclaimed the works to be an indication of schizophrenia and condemned all of modern art."

    I have read all the reviews of the first ever Post Impressionist Exhibition in London, put on by Roger Fry in 1910. And the reviews of the Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art, 1939, put on in Australia. Again the critics used the language of drunkardness, psychosis, sexual perversion, decadence and epidemic.

    I wouldn't have minded had the critics not liked the art in the three exhibitions of modern art. They could have said "Picasso cannot draw" or "Dali's images are not adding any learning to the world". Instead they were snide and couched their critique in terms of decadence and disease.

  2. Thanks Hels, Your comment is spot on.

  3. Although I blog mostly about Victorian art, Picasso stole my heart when I saw an exhibit of his work when I was 15. Our school's art teacher (bless her heart!) had insisted that the entire school attend the exhibit.

    Prior to seeing Picasso up close, I hadn't really understood modern art, and was somewhat sceptical the movement. A few minutes at the exhibit changed my mind entirely. I'm not sure how the likes of "self-styled oracle" Carl Jung managed to escape appreciating Picasso, but he must have been working hard at it.

    This post will be included in the December issue of the Art History Carnival, which goes up tomorrow. Thank you for bringing it to my attention!