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June 1998

Pablo Picasso in Person

The painter Pablo Picasso.

If ever an exhibition captured Pablo Picasso's passion and personality, it's the Hypo-Kunsthalle's "Picasso and his Collection" running until August 16. The show features more than 100 works by turn-of-the-century greats such as Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse collected by Picasso himself, as well as 60 of Picasso's pieces never before exhibited outside of France. This is no typical retrospective. Most galleries would honor the high priest of modernism who died 25 years ago with a comprehensive show documenting his brilliant career and a watershed era. Instead, the Hypo-Kunsthalle and Paris' Musée Picasso present the artist as voyeur: as a young painter jealously watching Matisse's success, in his established atelier, poking fun at the "naive" painter Henri Rousseau, and as an aging, merry old man whose fascination with art forms as varied as Renoir's nudes and African masks produced a lifetime of inspiration. The result is refreshing and alive: the artworks Picasso acquired reflect the artist he wanted to be, and the Hypo's sensitively arranged show makes this point with a concise, exquisite selection of works. The show's most stunning piece is Matisse's Basket of Oranges (Corbeille d'oranges) from early 1912. There is no mistaking why Picasso had to have this piece, a still-life he acquired in 1942 after decades of both admiring and despising the man who painted it, and which he hung in his atelier in Les Grands Augustins so that he would see it every day. It is a quiet composition that glows with the warm, vibrant tones of the Tangiers sun that likely shone the day Matisse painted it. Matisse's use of flat, ambiguous color fields fools the eye that hunts for perspective. Likewise, the undefined plane of the tablecloth itself - set off on one side by a right angle, but allowed to float alarmingly upwards in the center, toward the picture plane -indicates the game the artist was playing, an intellectual exercise that Picasso himself admired and then emulated with roaring success. Matisse and Picasso were first introduced to one another in Paris in 1906 at the Salon des Indépendents in Paris by the American author Gertrude Stein. Matisse, who was twelve years Picasso's senior, was a self-assured, mature painter, whose work was the sensation of both the City of Light and the world. Picasso had only moved to Paris three years earlier, and had yet to produce his Cubist masterpiece, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, which he would complete the following summer. The two men developed an inexplicable affinity for one another that transcended their mutual sense of rivalry. "The two painters were enthusiastic about one another, without actually especially liking one another," Stein wrote after the encounter at the Salon, and despite Matisse supposedly having laughed himself silly over Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, the two kept in close contact. More accurately, Picasso would not leave Matisse alone until the older artist agreed to do what fellow artists usually did, that is, swap paintings. At Picasso's insistence, Matisse gave him a portrait he had painted in the winter of 1906-07 of his daughter, Marguerite (also on display at the Hypo show). It was, according to Matisse, one of his least successful paintings: a very flat, two-dimensional work in oils, the face of the girl sketched with child-like simplicity, with two almond-shape ovals for eyes and a sideways, almost hieroglyphic nose. But sixty years later, Picasso admitted to the scope of Matisse's influence on his own work: he asked a friend if Marguerite reminded him of anything, and the friend replied, to Picasso's pleasure, that the nose of Marguerite was distorted in a fashion similar to that of the prostitutes' noses in Les Demoiselles. "No one has ever looked at Matisse's paintings as closely as I have." Picasso said, "Or he at mine." Whether it was Matisse's Marguerite, Cézanne's La Mer à L'Estaque, or African tribal masks that ultimately had the greatest influence on Picasso is still anybody's guess. What is important about the show is that works such as these, brought together in one place after so many years apart, reconstruct the color and form that surrounded Picasso as he worked. They are, in a way, all that we have of Picasso's old friends: an incomparable group who would meet in the artist's studio on Monmartre to savor one another's company, damn the Académie, and give modern art its powerful visual force and enduring stylistic momentum. The exhibition "Picasso and his Collection" (Picasso und seine Sammlung) is accompanied by a fantastic exhibition catalogue edited by Hélène Seckel-Klein, curator of the Musée Picasso, that features photographs of Picasso and the interiors of his various ateliers, as well as brilliant color plates of the works exhibited. Particularly revealing are shots of the artist as a young man in the midst of the chaos and clutter of the studios at Bateau-Lavoir and Boulevard de Clichy. The sketches, paintings, and sculpture strewn about these rooms offer a rich source for reading and recognizing Picasso's myriad muses.

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