In 2018, Claude Picasso, son of the artist Pablo Picasso, said there were too many exhibitions devoted to his father. He fretted that his dad’s works would suffer damage because they were traveling so frequently and worried that few of these shows contributed much in the way of new scholarship. “Many people expect to make discoveries that, at the end of the day, they do not make, and they are not satisfied with what is on offer,” he said. “Among the exhibitions held, there is a load that are not necessary.”
Claude Picasso died this year, along with his mother, the painter Françoise Gilot, and the notion that there is such a thing as too many Picasso shows. To mark the 50th anniversary of Picasso’s death, dozens of museums across the globe staged exhibitions devoted to the artist. Some were small, some were large. Some were widely seen, others largely ignored. All contained a familiar refrain: Picasso’s art still matters, like it or not.
But did we really need 50 exhibitions to figure that out? It was already self-evident based on museums’ permanent collection galleries, which almost always contain their prized Picassos. It was also obvious based on the glut of mid- and late-career Picassos that hit the auction block every year. (This year’s top lot was a $139.4 million Picasso painting of Marie-Thérèse Walter.) And by the way, good luck finding a museum bookstore that doesn’t have something Picasso-related, be it a 2024 wall calendar, a salt shaker emblazoned with his face, or a tea towel printed with his cutesy, pacifist dove image.
It’s safe to say that, because of all those shows, 2023 was the year of Picasso. But it’s also safe to say we learned just about nothing in the process.
Some museum shows tried to suggest that there was actually still more to be gained from studying Picasso. One was “Picasso in Fontainebleau,” a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (through February 17) that surveys one summer spent at a commune in the south of France in 1921. This is a remarkably specific slice of Picasso history—it occupies about a dozen pages of John Richardson’s 1,800-page biography of the artist—but curator Anne Umland suggests that it can teach us a lot about his method. She fixes on the fact that he was creating two major works at the same time: Three Musicians (1921), whose sitters fracture into a dazzling array of intersecting shapes, and Three Women at the Spring (1921), whose sitters wear drape-like dresses reminiscent of ancient Greece instead of contemporary France.
What explains the fact that Picasso was navigating “multiple temporalities,” as Umland puts it in the catalogue—that he was shuttling between classicism and avant-gardism simply by walking the short length of his studio, whose walls were hung with versions of both pictures simultaneously? The exhibition seeks to get to the bottom of things, burrowing so far down the rabbit hole that Umland has even created a gallery that reimagines Picasso’s studio down to its precise, cramped dimensions.
“Picasso in Fontainebleau” gets points for art-historical nerdiness, and for digging up oddities such as studies for Three Women at the Spring that show off Picasso’s knack for painting fattened fingers and bulbous palms. The problem is that “Picasso in Fontainebleau” comes up short. You get a sense of how rapidly Picasso was able to transition between artistic modes, but anyone with even passing knowledge of the artist’s oeuvre already understands that. You want it to go a step further, showing why these two paintings unlock something mysterious about the inner workings of Picasso’s mind, which remain just that: opaque and unknowable.
Where “Picasso in Fontainebleau” is successful, however, is in its implicit exploration of Picasso’s supposed genius. With its panoply of studies and failed artworks, the show sands down the notion that Picasso produced masterpieces overnight, that his first stroke was his best stroke. That sets it apart from a show like the Guggenheim Museum’s “Young Picasso in Paris,” which probably would have rankled Claude Picasso.
That small exhibition, which closed over the summer, asserted that Picasso père was more or less born with talent, with works that date to his early 20s. Some really are that good: Moulin de la Galette (ca. 1900), featuring revelers who flit through the darkness of a bar, remained striking. But others, like The Diners (1901), with its female figure who melts into the white table beneath her due to Picasso’s ill-defined brushwork, are slapdash and slack.
These were two of just 10 works in the entire exhibition, but you wouldn’t know it based on the crowds. When I visited the exhibition in June, visitors jostled for an unobstructed view of Moulin de la Galette. Meanwhile, Gego’s 160-work retrospective lining the rotunda was much more sparsely populated. Her wire sculptures swayed gently in the wind, with few onlookers to observe them as they did so.
Of the 50 shows mounted in the “Celebración Picasso” series, none were retrospectives. This didn’t mean there were no big shows—the Centre Pompidou in Paris, for example, has a blowout survey featuring around 1,000 works on paper by the artist. But mostly, what we got were scraps related to Picasso’s legacy, the result being that nothing felt grand enough to say anything major.
The tendency was particularly pronounced in New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has a world-class collection of Picassos in its arsenal, mounted a one-gallery show devoted to the Picasso masterpiece that never was: a vast commission for Hamilton Easter Field’s Brooklyn home. Field would’ve had a fabulous library lined with Cubism of the highest order were it not for his mother, whose conservative aesthetic sensibilities ended up influencing his own. The whole thing gradually came apart; the show (through January 14) endeavors to understand what could have been.
What we are left with, at the Met, are some of the works made in the run-up to the commission: tangles of brown and grey forms that cohere to form female nudes and still lifes (with the help of explanatory wall texts). Anna Jozefacka, the curator of the exhibition, makes a compelling case for how Picasso tried to fit his rough-hewn avant-gardism into a refined patron’s digs, finding along the way that the two were fundamentally incompatible. The show does provide an interesting case study for Picassoheads, but without the finished product, it all comes off a bit staid.
The Met’s Picasso show aims to unravel a side of Picasso that no one ever saw—in this case, because the work doesn’t exist. But in the case of “A Foreigner Called Picasso” at Gagosian gallery (through February 10), the side of the artist explored—his identity as an immigrant—was not always easy to see because Picasso sometimes hid it away as best he could.
The show is curated by art historians Annie Cohen-Solal and Vérane Tasseau; the former is the author of the terrific book Picasso the Foreigner, finally released in English this year after publishing in France in 2021. The book traces how Picasso, a Spaniard by birth, refashioned himself a Frenchman, only to unknowingly lead an antagonistic relation with the French state, whose officers surveilled him for years because of perceived connections to Communism. (In reality, he was not much of an activist for most of his career.)
Cohen-Solal’s book is a massive contribution to the crowded field of Picasso studies, which generally does not view the artist as a political subject. Unfortunately, the Gagosian show doesn’t offer the same thrills as its related book. That’s because much of what Cohen-Solal deals with in her writing isn’t all that visual: official documents, letters, and the like.
The exhibition attempts to provide a visual armature for all that text, but it’s not always easy to understand the relationship between the Picasso paintings and the Picasso file kept by the Sûreté General—especially because the show itself contains almost no captions at all. A section about how Picasso hunkered down during World War II, for example, is mainly composed of paintings of Dora Maar and Marie-Thérèse Walter. Notably, the exhibition does not discuss his failed attempts at becoming a French citizen during that period much, even though that is the subject of an entire chapter in Cohen-Solal’s book. This is a shame, and all the more so because the show is the kind of gallery exhibition many might describe as “museum-quality,” seeing as it has loans of important works from the Met and other institutions.
Not far away from the Gagosian show, Pace also has its own Picasso show (through December 22), this one focused on 14 sketchbooks. The sketchbooks included are meant to provide insights into Picasso’s process, with one dating to around the time he made Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) intended to illuminate elements that didn’t make it into the final product. But these are simply sketches after all, and it’s worth remembering that although Picasso did periodically rip some from his notebooks and claim them as artworks in their own right, many are not major, since they were meant only for private consumption. Yet the show, with its darkened lighting, has the feeling of a space meant to inspire contemplation in the face of greatness.
Greatness, however, is decidedly not what is on view. Take one 1956 ink drawing of a couple caught in an erotic embrace. Unlike Picasso’s paintings, whose conflations of torsos, legs, arms, genitals, and facial features do offer their pleasures, this drawing comes off as a sloppy, testosterone-induced mess. Why, I wondered, does this man’s thigh awkwardly disappear into his lover’s crotch? Then I realized I had thought too hard about a work that Picasso himself probably tossed off—and maybe didn’t even want the public to see at all. For a man who is estimated to have made tens of thousands of artworks, it only makes sense that some of them don’t merit closer attention.
But no one can forget Guernica, or Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, or Picasso’s portraits of a sobbing Dora Maar, or his painting of a stoic Gertrude Stein, or his Cubist still lifes, or his Blue Period harlequins. That’s the implicit assertion of many exhibitions that appeared in museums and galleries this year that aimed to show Picasso’s enduring influence on contemporary artists. The sheer existence of these shows suggests that dealers, artists, and curators still cling to Picasso’s legacy, even as they critique it.
Yet some may wish to forget Picasso altogether, and one of those people is the comedian Hannah Gadsby, who, in their 2018 Netflix special Nanette, dressed down art historians for continuing to worship at the altar of a man who inflicted physical and emotional abuse on the women he called his lovers. Gadsby’s Brooklyn Museum show “It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby,” arguably the most talked-about Picasso show of the year, was meant to expand the critique made in Nanette. It did so by putting art by the “passionate, tormented, genius man ball-sack”—the comedian’s words—alongside feminist works from the institution’s collection.
On paper (and without an embarrassing pun for a title), this is actually not a bad idea for an exhibition. If only Gadsby had succeeded in highlighting genuine connections between Picasso and, say, Nina Chanel Abney, whose work here alluded not to his art but to Édouard Manet’s. It was clear that the women artists in the show didn’t pay much mind to Picasso—the painter Joan Semmel even admitted to as much in a companion guide to the show. Ironically, Gadsby seemed to center Picasso within art history more than these artists did.
But let’s say you really wanted to move on from Picasso. What might that look like? The French artist Sophie Calle faced that quandary when she agreed to take over the whole of Paris’s Musée Picasso several years ago. This fall, she ended up coming up with one of the very few interesting Picasso-related shows mounted this year.
Calle told Art in America that she did not want to cancel Picasso. Her solution: empty the museum of his art and fill it with her own belongings and art. She kept a select few pieces by Picasso on view, but she relegated them to the basement and concealed some of them beneath paper. In Calle’s hands, those Picassos look more like objects packed for transport than they do immovable masterpieces. They are now things that are temporary, ready to pass on to another place.
If one was to visit the Musée Picasso right now, expecting to see Blue and Rose Period paintings and Cubist experiments, they might come away peeved and underwhelmed. In a strange way, that seems to echo Claude Picasso’s words from 2018: “Many people expect to make discoveries that, at the end of the day, they do not make, and they are not satisfied with what is on offer.” Perhaps Calle, in draining the Musée Picasso’s galleries of almost all things Picasso, had diagnosed the problem and found the only possible remedy for it: a temporary pause on the Picasso festivities that would allow for some actual thinking to occur. Finally, a moment of contemplation.