A visit to the refurbished Musée National Picasso-Paris

Published 25 February 2015

Sarah Whitfield visits the newly refurbished château in Paris housing the world’s finest collection of Picasso, a tour de force in the City of Light.

  • From the Spring 2015 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    The recent reopening of the Musée National Picasso-Paris (formerly the Musée Picasso) housed in the magnificent 17th-century Hôtel Salé in Paris’s Marais district, comes after five years of controversial construction, well-publicised internal disagreements and behind-the-scenes political manoeuvrings. Picasso is a huge prize for any city, hence the renaming of the museum to emphasise its national importance.

    Of the three other important Picasso museums in Europe (in Barcelona, Málaga and Antibes) Barcelona’s is the one that comes closest in significance to Paris, housing over 4,000 works as against the 5,000 and more held by the Hôtel Salé. Whereas Barcelona has the largest collection of the artist’s early work, Paris benefitted from the Acceptance in Lieu law devised by the wily arts minister André Malraux, passed in France in 1968 with the specific intention of acquiring a substantial part of the artist’s estate for the nation. Further bequests by the artist’s widow Jacqueline and his children have formed the most comprehensive collection of Picasso’s work to be seen anywhere. And the upgraded museum now has double the exhibition space.

    Under the new director, aptly named Laurent Le Bon, political wrangling was deftly solved by inviting the former director Anne Baldessari to take charge of the opening exhibition. And she has made a beautiful job of it. Helped by the new spaces devised by the architect Jean-François Bodin that use the spacious attics (displaying Picasso’s own art collection donated by his family) and the vast vaulted cellars (hung with photographs of – and artefacts from – the artist’s various studios) Baldessari has done full justice to the towering presence of her subject.

  • Installation view of the Musée National Picasso-Paris

    Installation view of the Musée National Picasso-Paris

    © Musée National Picasso-Paris / Béatrice Hatala

  • Although one could argue that it would be difficult to fail, given the material and the setting, much depends on how that material is shown. Baldessari knows the work backwards, and the confidence with which she puts it together, following a fairly conventional chronological sequence, produces moments of beatific recognition of well-known masterpieces perfectly installed, as well as a series of bold and exhilarating conjunctions of painting and sculpture.

    Then there is the way Baldessari has used the setting of the building. To see The Pipes of Pan, a major work of 1923, hung at the head of the grand staircase (pictured) is to understand how appropriate a context Hôtel Salé is for an artist who, from the time he could afford it, chose to work in the architecturally imposing spaces of old French châteaux.

    This installation will have a short life. From June, Le Bon’s new vision for the museum will begin to take shape. He will start by reversing the museum’s reputation for being unhelpful to scholars. Access will be granted to the library’s 11,000 books and 200,000 documents. Next, he will end the long years of the museum’s self- imposed isolation and start to forge links with other institutions, starting with other museums in Paris. Exhibitions on Picasso and Primitivism and on the so-called Blue and Pink periods are planned with the Musée du quai Branly and the Musée d’Orsay respectively.

    Further afield, a large selection of the sculptures will be going on loan this autumn to the Museum of Modern Art, New York. There is no reason to suppose there will not be equally satisfying exhibitions at the Hôtel Salé in the future, but for those who can visit the museum before this summer, do so.

  • Sarah Whitfield is an art critic.

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