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Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The 'Other' Picasso Show at the PMA

Museum's 1958
Picasso Exhibit Recalled

By Richard Carreño
Junto Staff Writer Bio 
When the Pablo Picasso exhibit closed, the Philadelphia Museum of Art declared the show a rousing 'success.' Despite snowstorms. Snowstorms?

No, 'Picasso and the Paris Avant-Garde,' which just ended a two-month plus run, was hardly the victim of unseasonal snow.

What the Philadelphia Museum was referring to was the other Picasso show in 1958 -- the first blockbuster introduction of works by the Spanish artist to a Philadelphia audience.

In many ways, 'Picasso at 75,' a reference to the artist's age at the time, was an even more ambitious show that the 'Picasso and the Paris Avant-Garde,' which concluded this month.

For starters, it was co-produced by the PMA, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago. (The recent show was an in-house installation). It was fully comprehensive, including a representative retrospective of the complete Picasso oeuvre, on canvas, prints, ceramics, and illustrated books. It featured a requisite catalog. And  it featured Guernica, Picasso's most famous public work.

Even before the paint has dried on curator Michael Taylor's 'Picasso and the Paris Avant-Garde,' the PMA is referencing that first Picasso exhibition with an other exhibit, a smallish display in several showcases in the museum's library, the Albert M. Greenfield Visual and Digital Resources Center. The library is located in the Perelman Building, and the exhibit runs to June 12.

The library exhibit traces the museum's association with the Picasso (1881-1973) as it attempted to bolster its modern art collection -- and bona fides -- under the legendary directorship of Fiske Kimball. It was a 'new' emphasis, as it was described. 

The museum had acquired its first Picasso, Woman with Loaves, in 1931. But it wasn't until the 1940s and 1950s that the PMA was able to field a Picasso line-up to write home about, thanks to the genius and generosity of A.E Gallatin and Louise and Walter Arensberg, who respectively settled their eponymous collections to the museum.

Besides having to battle snowstorms, 'Picasso at 75,' held more than 50 years ago from January 8 to February 23, 1958, had to face a vastly different audience than one that attended the museum's recent show. 'Modern' was still identified in many circles -- especially in uptight Philadelphia -- as outre, even deviant. Picasso, with his band-name recognition, often became the 'poster child' for this view.

Fresh from viewing 'Picasso at 75,' a female Philadelphian -- I can picture her now as a Helen Hokinson battle-axe figure in The New Yorker -- wrote in, 'Just mention Picasso's name in a crowd and a ripple of laughter flows thru it. Now I know why! I went to the exhibit to see how you defended yourself in allowing an exhibit like this to be show at such a fine Art Museum.'

Such reaction wasn't unexpected. All along, it seemed, there was an underlying 'educational' theme to the show, introducing Picasso's art to the museum's audience for both 'enjoyment and scholarship.' (Emphasis mine).

And what enjoyment! What scholarship!

Especially since the Philadelphia Museum was able expand the trunk show with supplementary artwork. Picasso, writing in French from the south of France, gave the PMA specific permission to display a group of of ceramics that were then housed in the Rotterdam-based museum Boijmans.

The highlight, of course, was Guernica (1937), Picasso's legendary canvas that commemorates the sacrifice of republicans bombed by Nazis aligned with the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. Picasso had decreed that he, nor the painting would ever set foot in Spain as long as Franco ruled his homeland. At the show, Guernica held pride of place, installed at the top of the Great Stair Hall.

I can almost attest to how breathtaking a viewing experience, looking up at the stark painting, must have been. Some years later, I visited Guernica, which was then still permantently housed in MoMA, and where it remained until Franco's death in 1975. I've also seen the painting at the Museo National Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, in Madrid, where it now resides. Still, I can't help but think that encountering Guernica in the stunning, majestic Great Hall would have been the best thrill of all.

The museum noted that 79,484 people attended 'Picasso a 75.' Of these, 13,112 were admitted free of charge. (In those days, the museum was open seven days a week. Mondays were free. Otherwise, admission cost 75 cents).

'Despite several snowstorms, Picasso aficionados and curiosity seekers alike showed up, and the exhibition was a success,' the museum reported.