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Musée Picasso in Paris Probes Deep Into the Artist’s Mind

The Musée Picasso is located in the Hôtel Salé, the largest hôtel particulier in Le Marais. It was described by French art historian Bruno Foucart as “the grandest, most extraordinary, if not the most extravagant, of the grand Parisian houses of the 17th century.” The hôtel was built in the Italian Baroque style between 1656-1659 by architect Jean Boullier de Bourges (also known as Jean de Boullier). It was made for Pierre Aubert, seigneur de Fontenay, who became wealthy through various schemes and an advantageous marriage. However, it was his role in collecting a salt tax that gave the hôtel its name (salé means “salted”).

A political scandal in 1663 brought down Aubert and his mentor, French Finance Minister Nicolas Fouquet. Creditors hungrily circled the property, which was caught up in legal proceedings for 60 years. During this time, it was rented to various tenants including the Embassy of the Republic of Venice. The hôtel was finally sold in 1728.

During the French Revolution, it was expropriated by the state and used to store books seized from local convents. It was sold again in 1797 and remained the property of the family who purchased it until 1962. In that period, it was leased to various academic institutions. In 1815 it became the Ganser-Beuzelin boarding school, at which French writer Honoré de Balzac studied. From 1829-1884, the building housed the municipal l’Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures (a prestigious engineering school). From 1944-1969, it was home to the City of Paris l’Ecole des Métièrs d’Art (which is dedicated to the study of the decorative arts).

The Hôtel Salé  was acquired by the City of Paris in 1964 and designated a Historical Monument in 1968.

In 1968, France created a law that allowed for inheritance taxes to be paid in the form of works of art instead of money, as long as those art works were deemed an important contribution to French cultural heritage. Such a donation was known as a dation, and was allowed only in exceptional circumstances. In 1973, Spanish-artist Pablo Picasso died. The artist (born in Málaga in 1881) lived most of his adult life, from 1905 onwards, in France. By this point, Picasso had amassed an enormous collection of his own art. More than 5,000 art works were donated by his family upon his death. More would be donated upon the death of his second wife, Jacqueline Roque.

Pablo Picasso in 1962. From Wikipedia.

In 1974, the Hôtel Salé was selected as the site of the new Musée Picasso, which would exhibit the donated works. The hôtel was renovated and refurbished from 1979-1980 by architect Roland Simounet, who won a public design competition for the project. In 1985, the Musée Picasso was inaugurated. Its collection includes sketchbooks, paintings, sculptures, ceramics, drawings, personal papers and photographs, manuscripts, correspondence, prints, and engravings. The collection is so extensive that it can’t all be displayed at once.

When Neil and I visited, the museum was hosting a special exhibit on Picasso’s first wife, Olga.

Picasso is recognized as one of the most influential, well-known, and revolutionary artists of the 20th century. He is often considered as one of the leaders of modern art. He had extraordinary talent, even from a young age. A quote of his I spotted in the museum refers to his drive to challenge himself after achieving early artistic mastery: “When I was 12 I could draw like Raphael. It has taken me a lifetime to learn how to draw like a child.” Picasso experimented with different and radical techniques, styles, and ideas. He co-founded the Cubist movement, co-invented collage, invented constructed sculpture (also known as assemblage), and a wide variety of other styles. He wasn’t content with art as it had always been done; he was a disruptor, a de-constructor, and an innovator.

Guitar. Picasso: Paris, spring 1926.  A 3-dimensional constructed sculpture (also known as assemblage). Uses found objects, a technique that Picasso helped invent.

Olga Khokhlova (1891-1955) was born in Nijin, a Ukrainian town that was then part of the Russian Empire. In 1912, she entered the prestigious Russian ballet which was then under the direction of Serge Diaghilev. In the spring of 1917, she met Picasso in Rome while he was designing the costumes and set for the ballet Parade, which she danced in. After meeting Picasso, she left the ballet company to live with Picasso first in Barcelona, and then in Paris (he split his time between the two cities). They were married on July 12, 1918. Olga was Picasso’s first wife and muse.

Portrait of Olga in an armchair. Picasso: Spring 1918.

The telegram below was sent by Serge de Diaghilev (director of the Russian Ballet) from London to Picasso on August 14, 1919. It reads: “Ballet Parade past 15th November strongly advise coming with Olga to work on new works. Your arrival is warmly awaited.”

Olga Picasso’s trunk.

The exhibit noted that Olga was the “perfect model during Picasso’s classical period” and that she was portrayed by “thin, elegant lines” and was “synonymous with [Picasso’s] return to figuration.” Olga was often represented as “melancholic, sitting, reading, or writing, no doubt an allusion to the correspondence she maintained with her family that lived during a tragic moment in history.” At the time, the Russian Empire had collapsed and her family was caught up in the hardships of her home country. Her family’s social status was lost, and her father later disappeared. Her correspondence with her family became sporadic as conditions in Russia worsened.

Pensive Olga. Picasso: 1923.

In 1921, Olga gave birth to a boy named Paulo. The exhibit notes: “Olga became the inspiration for numerous maternity scenes, compositions bathed in innocent softness. The familial scenes and portraits of a young boy show a serene happiness that blossom in timeless forms. These forms correspond to Picasso’s new attention to antiquity and the renaissance discovered in Italy, which was reactivated by the family’s summer stay in Fontainebleu in 1921.”

Mother and Child. Picasso: 1921.
The Salon of Fontainebleau: Olga at the Piano. Picasso: Fontainebleau, July 6, 1921.

This serene happiness, sadly, didn’t last. In 1927, Picasso began an affair with a 17-year old French girl named Marie-Thérèse Walter. Olga wouldn’t learn of the affair until 1935, when Marie-Thérèse became pregnant. But during this time her marriage with Picasso suffered, and his representations of her in his art reflected that. Look at Picasso’s painting of Olga shown above, and then notice the change in the painting below. The exhibit notes: “Olga is nothing but pain and sorrow. Her form is flaccid with violent expression and translates the nature of the couple’s profound crisis.”

The big nude in the red armchair. Picasso: 1929.

It was quite shocking to come up the stairs and to be greeted by the painting! It was a dramatic departure from the works featuring Olga that we had seen on the first floor! There was also such an interesting contrast between the classical architecture of the Hôtel Salé and this piece.

The painting below shows a “bust of a woman” with a “self-portrait” of himself. One can never known the truth of a relationship and what the proper assignation of blame is, but I’d say this isn’t the fairest representation. Artistic privilege, perhaps?

Bust of a Woman with Self-Portrait. Picasso: February 1929.

When Olga learned of Picasso’s affair and impending child with Marie-Thérèse in 1935, she took Paulo and fled to southern France. For a year, Picasso Picasso temporarily stopped painting. Olga filed for divorce, but Picasso refused to grant her half of his worth—as required by French law. Olga and Picasso remained legally married until her death from cancer in 1955.

Here are some of Picasso’s works from other parts of the exhibit.

Sacré-Coeur. Picasso: Paris, Winter 1909-1910.

The painting below was executed at some point either before or after Picasso temporarily stopped painting in 1935, when his marriage with Olga imploded. The minotaur, a man with a bull’s head, was a common theme for Picasso and he used it to symbolize himself. The female figures in the painting (including a wounded female bull-fighter) have the same facial features as his mistress, Marie-Thérèse.

Minotauromachy (Le Minotaurmachie). Picasso: 1935.

The painting below features the “artist” on the right, bent over his palette, and the model on the left with a tiny head, long neck, many arms, and a giant foot.

The Artist and His Model. Picasso: 1926.

The Musée Picasso was a great place to visit. It served as my introduction to the artist and his work, as Picasso was a man whose name I had heard a lot but I actually knew very little about him.

The museum is small and everything can be seen in an hour or two. Sometimes, that’s exactly what we want! It was also air-conditioned, which we thoroughly appreciated.

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