Picasso & Monk in Paris
In a room devoted to Pablo Picasso in the 1950s, there’s something unexpected: the sound of Thelonious Monk, alone at the piano, ruminating on “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You”. The rest of Thelonious Himself, the 1957 album consisting of seven solo tracks plus “Monk’s Mood” with John Coltrane and Wilbur Ware, is playing on a continuous loop, quietly and unobtrusively, conditioning the mood in which a handful of masterpieces, including Jacqueline aux mains croisées (1954), can be examined as part of a new exhibition in the Musée Picasso in Paris.
It’s one of several surprises introduced by the British designer Paul Smith, invited by the museum’s director to create a show commemoraing the fiftieth anniversary of Picasso’s death. His brief was to bring a fresh eye to bear on the selection and presentation of items from the 5,000 assorted artworks in the permanent collection, most of them acquired by the nation as part of an inheritance-tax settlement with the artist’s family.
I first met Paul in 1965, when we were still in our teens and he’d just begun managing the menswear department on the upper floor of a boutique in Nottingham. Called Birdcage, it was a minute’s walk away from the tiny premises in which, five years later, he would open the first shop bearing his own name. Now there are more than 120 Paul Smith shops in 60 countries around the world. Back then he was full of imagination, enthusiasm and a love of silly humour, all qualities that time, a knighthood and membership of the Légion d’honneur have done nothing to erode.
His instinctive response to the museum’s invitation was to emphasise the role of colour in the artist’s career, from the pink period of 1904-1906 to the blue and white stripes of the Breton sailors’ shirt Picasso was wearing when the photographer Robert Doisneau turned up to capture some famous images at his house in Vallauris in Provence in 1952, including the shot where sausage-shaped bread rolls — petits pains — take the place of his fingers.
Mounted with wit and zest, avoiding the reverence with which such retrospectives are traditionally mounted, some of the show is eye-popping. In one of the 24 themed rooms, originals are mounted on walls papered with posters from Picasso exhibitions around the world. His variations on Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe are ranged in the greenest green room you’ve ever seen. A wall of pale blue and yellow lozenges echoes the harlequin costume worn by the painter’s three-year-old son Paul as he posed for his father in 1924. The abundance of floral and striped wallpaper makes the rooms in which a more sober approach is appropriate — the Blue and Rose periods, or the poignantly understated finale of Le Jeune peintre, from Picasso’s last year on earth, in a room washed in pale sunlight — even more effective.
Not just paintings, either. A dozen of Picasso’s one-off decorated dinner plates are mounted in the middle of a wall of plain white plates, which seem to be waiting for him to get up in the morning, grab his paints and start daubing fishbones or minotaur’s heads. The famous bull’s head fashioned in 1942 from a discarded pair of dropped handlebars and a bicycle saddle is hung high on one wall of the very first room, confronting a herd of cows on the opposite wall assembled from their modern equivalents, with the bars turned downwards, presumably to signify bovine submission in the face of taurean power. There’s a sense of semi-surrealistic comedy at work here that mirrors Picasso’s own sense of humour but also offers a quiet comment.
Perhaps purists will be relieved to have their Picassos restored to more neutral surroundings after the exhibition in the beautiful hôtel particulier in the Marais ends in August, but Paul’s inclusion of the sound of Monk’s piano — apart from giving me an excuse to devote a piece to the show in a blog about music — seemed to symbolise the benign and sympathetic creativity at work in the exhibition as a whole.
* Célébration Picasso: Le collection prend ses couleurs! is at the Musée Picasso, 5 Rue de Thorigny, Paris 75003, from 7 March to 27 August 2023.