‘Fantastic but scary’: The new Paris exhibition grappling with Picasso’s controversial legacy

When British fashion designer Paul Smith was asked to oversee a rehang of the Picasso Museum in Paris to mark 50 years since the artist's death, he decided to have some fun.

'Fantastic but scary': The new Paris exhibition grappling with Picasso's controversial legacy
Spanish painter Pablo Picasso, pictured on the Côte d'Azur in 1972, spent most of his life in France. Photo by Ralph GATTI / AFP

The 76-year-old designer’s playful approach does away with the usual art gallery white cube and piles on the colour.

It is simple yet highly effective: Pablo Picasso’s blue period is presented in a room painted and carpeted in rich dark blue, the bullfighting sketches on blood-red walls, the “Luncheon on the Grass” in verdant green.

“I had carte blanche to do whatever I want in the whole museum, which was obviously fantastic but also quite scary,” Smith told AFP.

The museum approached him five years ago with the commission, and Smith spent months trawling through some 200,000 works from its archives.

He has plucked out little-seen items, including silly and lewd doodles that Picasso made over magazine ads — signs of a mind that was always working.

“He never really stopped,” said Smith. “There were drawings on magazines, on napkins, on newspapers. He was constantly thinking about creating shapes.”

It’s a fun way to start off the exhibition, along with Smith’s favourite piece: a bicycle seat and handlebars that Picasso put together to look like a bull’s head.

“The way he thought about things was fascinating and very interesting,” he said.

“I made it very decorative because the idea is that young school children and teenagers will come and see his work in a different light. Many of us have already seen Picasso many times around the world, so we hope to show it in a new way.”

Six living artists are also featured, including a Black Lives Matter-inspired piece by New Yorker Mickalene Thomas that sits alongside Picasso’s wartime work.

And of course, the trademark Paul Smith coloured stripes also crop up.

“To stay in fashion as an independent company… to stay relevant for all these years, means you’re constantly reassessing, rethinking, which is probably one of the reasons why I got asked to do this exhibition,” Smith said.

The museum faces a constant challenge in finding new ways of venerating an artist whose work is so omnipresent, and whose decidedly old-school views on women have led to some severe #MeToo reappraisals.

“This museum’s job is not to serve as a mausoleum to a great man,” its director Cecile Debray told AFP.

“We want to be open to debates and reflection on Picasso so as to reconsider his work and show its continued vitality.”

Smith’s playful rehang is mostly an opportunity to see the masterpieces in a way that shows how fun and contemporary they still look, but doesn’t entirely shy away from the controversies.

Paintings by Congolese artist Cheri Samba and Nigeria’s Obi Okigbo highlight the debt Picasso owed to African traditions.

Some have accused him of appropriation, though Smith saw an artist who was very open about his inspirations.

“He was never afraid to admit that he took it from Cezanne or took influence from the classics or from Manet,” said the designer. “A lot of creators today don’t really ever admit that somebody’s been an influence.”

Born in October 1881 in Malaga, Spain, Picasso spent most of his life in France and died on April 8th, 1973 on the Cote d’Azur, aged 91.

Dozens of exhibitions and conferences are marking the 50th anniversary of his death around the world, with a new research centre to be opened near the Paris museum in the autumn.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Six prehistoric sites in France to visit

Long before the Gauls, the Franks or the Romans, prehistoric groups of people were creating paintings, stone circles and burial mounds in the land that is now France.

Six prehistoric sites in France to visit

Several of these sites survive and have been meticulously preserved and opened up to visitors. Here’s our pick of some of the most fascinating prehistoric sites in France. 

The Carnac stones

Located in western France in Brittany, the Carnac Stones are one of Europe’s most important ancient sites. They are a collection of thousands of ancient stones, spread over 27 communes. You might recognise these “menhirs” – single standing stones – as the giant rocks carried by Obelix, in the classic “Asterix & Obelix” French comic series.

Recently these stones made the front pages in France when 39 were reportedly destroyed to make way for the construction of a DIY store.

READ MORE: Prehistoric standing stones in western France destroyed during construction of DIY store

Believed to have been erected during the Neolithic period, some stones are thousands of years old, having been placed there as early as 4,000 BC.

There is still a lot of mystery surrounding why the stones were placed there and what purpose they served. One local legend says that they are the remains of a Roman army that was turned into rock. Others believe that the site is a ‘megalithic yard’ – or an ancient unit of measurement.

You can visit the stones for free from October to March, but between April and September, you must go via paid tour guide. With several hiking trails around the site, there are plenty of paths to explore. Tours are also available in English, German and Spanish.

There is also a nearby museum about the site called the “Maison des Megaliths“, which is open and accessible year round. You can find more information about planning your trip to see the stones here.

The caves in Lascaux

In the Vézère valley in Dordogne, there are more than 100 prehistoric sites and over two dozen decorated caves dating back to the Palaeolithic period. The most famous is the “Lascaux Cave” –  a UNESCO recognised site. It was discovered in 1940 and paved the way for a much greater appreciation of prehistoric art, featuring detailed and colourful hunting scenes. 

Much of the prehistoric art found in the caves in this valley is thought to be up to 20,000 years old.

Unfortunately, visitors are no longer allowed to enter the Lascaux Caves, as scientists came to the conclusion that tourism could harm the art. Instead, you can visit a detailed reconstruction of the caves, the Lascaux IV, which was recently completed.

There are plenty of other prehistoric sites nearby in Dordogne, including the “Grotte de Rouffignac”, another cave, but one where visitors can view the sites from inside an electric train.

You can find more information about visiting these sites HERE.

The caves in Ardèche

In southern France, just north of Avignon, lies the “Grotte Chauvet” – another UNESCO World Heritage site.

These caves contain some of the earliest known “figurative drawings” in the world, likely dating all the way back to the Aurignacian period (30,000–32,000 BC), according to UNESCO.

Discovered in 1994, the cave had managed to remain untouched for thousands of years. The paintings show plenty of different animal species, including extinct ones like mammoth. 

Like the caves in the Vézère valley, the Grotte Chauvet is not accessible to the public, but there is an impressive reconstruction available for visit called the “Grotte Chauvet 2”. You can find ticketing information here.

Cairn de Barnenez

Also found in Brittany like the Carnac stones – though this time in the Finistère area – the Cairn de Barnenez is an ancient structure likely dating back to 4,800 BC, and a lesser known monument in France. It is recognised as “the largest megalithic mausoleum” in Europe. 

The Cairn de Barnanez is 72m long and currently measures six metres in height, though experts believe it once was eight to nine metres tall.

It contains 11 chambers, with at least four types of granite having been used in its construction. Older than the pyramids of Giza, archaeologists were able to discover several tools from the Bronze Age inside, and some have been put on display at the visitor’s centre (which is worth the visit too).

Tickets are €6, and you can find more information about planning your trip here.

The Niaux caves (and Grand Sites of Ariège)

If you want to be able to visit prehistoric caves and caverns in person, then you might consider the Niaux caves near the Pyrenees mountains. Many are still open to the public, so you can go in person to see the original paintings of bison, horses and deer that date back 13,000 years.

In order to visit the caves, you’ll need to make an appointment for a guided tour in advance. They typically last about one hour and 45 minutes.

These caves are part of the “Grand Sites of Ariège”, which also includes a great spot for families with kids, the ‘prehistoric park’ where you can enjoy workshops on how prehistoric people hunted, carved flint and lit fires. Both kids and adults can learn about archaeology, view films, and experience intricate reproductions of existing caves.

You can find more information about visiting HERE.

The Gallardet Dolmen

Located in the Hérault département in the south of France, near the village of Le Pouget, this is a prehistoric site that dates back to between 2,800BC to 3,500BC.

Large in size, the dolmen contains a 12 metre long corridor inside that was used as a burial site. The dolmen likely held an important religious or spiritual function at its time of construction. 

The site is easily accessible from the nearby village, with several walking paths that will take you directly to it.

Finally, if you want to explore more of France’s prehistory, you can plan a visit to the National Museum of Prehistory. It is located near the sites at the Vézère Valley, in the village of Les Eyzies. More information here