‘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.

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5 things to do in Paris on Mother’s Day

Mother's Day in France falls on June 4th, here Lost in Frenchlation's Sequoia Alonso offers her five top tips for ways to celebrate in Paris.

5 things to do in Paris on Mother’s Day

Visit a flowery cafe for brunch

Nothing screams Mother’s Day more than springtime and nature. But, what if you want an even greater Parisian experience, and some food to go with it?

Paris is full of corner cafés bursting to the brim with flowers along the building walls and above awnings. Perhaps the cutest example of this is La Favorite – the pinkest café in Paris (and a well-known hangout for Instagram influencers). You can find La Favorite here.

See a stand-up comedy show

Sarah Donnelly is an American who has been living in Paris for a while now, and she knows both the American and Parisian ways of life.

She used to have a show called Becoming Maman, a comedy special about being an American Mom of French kids, which is available on YouTube. Her current show is called The Only American in Paris, in which she talks about her life and motherhood.

You can go see her on Saturday, June 3rd, at the Theatre Saint Bo Martin – tickets here.

View some antique jewellery

A new exhibition opens at L’École, the School of Jewellery Arts, on June 2nd, just in time for Mother’s Day. Called A New Art: Metamorphoses of Jewellery, 1880-1914, it explores and showcases amazing pieces from the era that aren’t regularly exhibited, including some from private collections.

This is a rare opportunity to see some fantastic antiques – tickets here.

Have a theatre trip

Theatres in Paris host numerous English-speaking shows, and there is no shortage of them on Mother’s Day weekend, as well as some opera that is performed with English subtitles in projection.

Shows on June 3rd and 4th include A Brilliant Idea, The Bald Soprano, The Lesson, La Bohème, La Traviata and The Lion King. You can find out more and buy tickets here.

Catch a Mother’s Day film screening

On Mother’s Day itself (June 4th, remember) you could take her to the cinema.

Lost in Frenchlation hosts a screening of Alexis Michalik’s Une Histoire d’Amour, a moving tale of love, family, and overcoming hardships in life. There will also be a special Ciné Balade tour starting at 5pm for a fun and informative new experience in the city, celebrating French and international movies that have been shot around Paris.

The screening will start at 8pm with the bar and pre-screening event opening at 7pm. Located at the unique boat-themed cinema Club de L’Etoile in the 8th arrondissement, this is one of the most interesting experiences you can give your mother for her special day. You can find tickets here.