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.