Today in Paris, the Musee Picasso reopens after five years of turmoil and $60 million in renovation. It’s the anniversary of the great artist’s birth in 1881. (He would be 133 today!) Francois Hollande, the French President, will attend. Throngs of art lovers will follow. I’ll be among them as soon as I can swing a trip to Paris. When I was last in Paris, last spring, I just missed the planned May opening; it was one of many, many dates that came and went with no opening after all.
The project was overseen by a distinguished but idiosyncratic Picasso scholar, Anne Baldassari. Five years ago, she was given the responsibility of remodeling the 17th-century mansion in the Marais district of Paris. Her uncompromising vision for the renovation turned a planned two-year project into five long years. The old museum never seemed crowded to me. Not that many tourists made their way to its imposing gates. The museum always felt a little damp; after all the “Maris district was once a swamp. It was always a labyrinth of rooms clearly carved out of a very old space never meant for exhibiting art. But it was always one of my favorite museums. The space seemed appropriate; Picasso spent his entire career working in ancient spaces, both grand and humble. He spent the years of World War II working tirelessly in studios in Paris, even though he was forbidden to exhibit his work by the occupying Nazis.
Anne Baldassari was dismissed about a year ago, after acrimonious struggles with workers, other administrators, and Picasso heirs. But her scholarship is still respected; she was invited back to curate part of the hanging of the largest collection of Picasso paintings in the world. The museum houses about 5,000 works. In the old space, only a small fraction could be exhibited at a time. Picasso’s family donated most of these works to the French state after his death, in payment of death taxes.
One of my most unforgettable sights in a museum was not a work of great art; it was a young child crouched on the floor of the Musee Picasso in Paris. As her mother waited nearby, the little girl moved from one Picasso painting to another, intently drawing in a notebook. She was oblivious to anything around her, and people respectfully stood back to let her work. What she was doing WAS work, not play. Was she a budding genius, or just a kid going through a stage, as kids will? Hard to tell, but I admired her mother for patiently spending the day letting this child pursue her passion.
I think Pablo Picasso would approve. I hope he enjoys his birthday in his renovated museum!