By RICHARD CARREÑO
Photo: WC News Service
PARIS [WC News Service] -- The newly-reopened Musée National Picasso-Paris, closed for expansion and remodelling after an incredible (count em!) five years, is unarguably the world's most comprehensive and numerically superlative collection anywhere of works by Pablo Picasso, the prolific, long-time Parisian. There are, of course, many iconic pieces of the Picasso's canon elsewhere, with pride of place in museums from Madrid to New York. But for sheer number (more than four hundred objects) -- including great examples of the Spanish modern's oeuvre over a lifetime of artistic mastery -- the 'new' Picasso Museum is the place to show up. If you can get in.
No, the Picasso is not a timed-ticket establishment. But I'm wondering whether it really should be. Actually, putting up with the longish entrance queue is the easy part. (Full disclosure: As a reporter, I got to skip the line in a visit earlier this month). What's harder for everyone, even those credentialed as press, is seeing the works with any ease. Forget contemplation. Communion? Not in this lifetime. Even just trying to get up close and personal with any of the art is a spirited, athletic art form in itself. In weaving and bobbing among other museum-goers (many seem to be garden clubers on private tours), being built like a line-backer will definitely help. So will a periscope to see over the heads of fellow galleristas.
Hold on! It's not even quite yet spring-time in Paris, and the infamous museum 'gangs' have yet to show up in force. Reopening late last year -- after that astounding five-year-long do-over (more on that later) -- the museum as yet to be tested by the legions of spring and summer out-of-towners that make Paris' museums the most visited -- and crowded! -- on the planet. If you've survived a gang-bang visit to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, welcome to the Picasso Museum, where visitors are often likely to feel that they're being crushed in a rush-hour Metro carriage than simply visiting a temple of culture.
Actually, it's not just the numbers that make for such an uncomfortable experience. The museum building, the Hôtel Salé, gets star billing: It's spaces are more like cubicles than galleries; the interior, a maze of nooks and crannies. Toilets and a wardrobe are hard to find. (Basement level). The gift shop is too small, especially on a rainy day, such as was the case when I visited and everyone wanted an umbrella. (I bought the last one). A tiny café is squirreled in what might be a parapet, accessed by the spiral staircase. (Yes, mirable dictu, an elevator is available). The Hôtel Salé, I reckon, was just about perfect (for entertaining, dining, political intrigue?) when it was a 17th century hôtel particulère, that is a private townhouse. As a 21st-century museum venue, not so much.
When I first visited the museum, a less ambitious presentation of a then-smaller permanent collection was simpler to digest. Less was easier. The expanded floor plan, by architect Jean-François Bodin, just emphasizes more. Thanks to Bodin, things just go bump in the night, with patrons creating the kind of two-way traffic that for safety's sake usually requires a dotted line in the roadway. A suggested one-way Ikea-like path would have been nice.
In recent years, the museum's neighbourhood, Le Marais, a one-time Jewish quarter, has also doubled-down as a tourist mecca, what with debut of new high-end shopping, new cultural institutions, and the retooling of older venues, many of which in previous years were often ignored by less-than-venturesome visitors. Places like the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, the Musée Carnavalet-Histoire de Paris, and Musée d'Art et Histoire du Judaisme among them have now attracted middle-class hordes to the area. Americans on holiday are suckers for museums. Especially, well-branded (Picasso as brand, rather than artist) venues that have star appeal.
The museum's physical flaws recede in importance when compared to its existing major failing, a helter-skelter hanging that follows no particular time line, theme, or subject. Works are just incoherently plastered here and there. See if it sticks, seems to be bizarre curatorial methodology of Anne Baldassari, who was fired as the institution's president (director) just before the museum again saw the light of day.
Like most museums in France, the Picasso is actually owned by the state, though much of the art itself is on loan from Picasso heirs. In a scenario worthy of a Marx Brothers film, the Baldassari sacking by French cultural officials (the owners) followed numerous, ongoing accusations regarding her alleged bullying of staff and mismanagement of finances. This contretemps occurred during the renovation period, resulting in work being over-budget and way beyond its original, forecasted deadline. A new director, Laurent Le Bon, was hired, but, to keep the peace, Baldassari was kept on as 'curator of the inaugural exhibition.'
That generous concession, as it turns out, was a big mistake. But least it's one, unlike the building itself, that can be fixed.