Picasso Primitif

The first Night of Museums, an event during which museums and cultural institutions remain open late into the night, took place for first time in Berlin in 1997. The number of participating institutions, mainly European but also of other continents, has kept on rising since and in 2005 it became an officially sponsored European Union event.

During this year’s 13the edition I happened to in Paris’ Musée du Quai Branly as I had tickets to go and see the inimitable French blues harmonica player Jean-Jacques Miltau with friends (this time singer and multi-instrumentalist Harrison Kennedy and cello player Vincent Segal) in the museum’s concert hall.

The Quai Branly museum, brainchild of the passionate and knowledgeable collector Jacques Chirac, a former French President, opened in 2006. Its permanent collections include some of the finest examples of non-western called “art premier” in French and “ethnographic or tribal art” in English. They are housed in an elegantly designed building by French architect Jean Nouvel whose winding paths literally invite you to wander and discover highlight after highlight. Besides its professional research library, the public can access one of my favourite reading spaces in Paris, a peaceful light flooded public reading room with relevant scientific works, magazines and exhibition catalogues.

I had made sure to have enough time before the concert to visit the “Picasso Primitif” exhibition. How many exhibitions of Picasso can one make and still be have something new to offer? If one does it well, countless exhibitions of course for the man himself is genius. Yet this exhibition is particularly interesting.

Unlike most other exhibitions you don’t actually get to see work by Picasso until the very end of the exhibition. Picasso Primitif concentrates on Picasso’s evolving relationship with non-western art via citations of Picasso, friends, art dealers and observers, via photographs especially of the interior of his various studios and through works of art that he saw or owned. The absence of Picasso’s work allows you to wander without distraction through the thoughts of the artist and his contemporaries.

The work of art that put the fear of God into Picasso : «Ceremonial headdress of Nevimbumbao, mythical female ogre of the island of Malekula in archipelago of Vanuatu in the South Pacific Ocean » given to him by Matisse. Picasso was convinced Matisse gave it to him because he was scared of it himself.

It allows you to see non-western art again and focus just on what it would have been like as a young and eager artist of the first half of the 20th century in a society with a still deeply colonial mindset to discover radically new ways of expressions and to realise they had been around for far longer than our presumed superior Western Art.

This happens precisely at a time and place (Paris) when so many talented Western artists coming from different cultural and linguistic background were living close together and influencing each other. A rapid succession of pervasive socio-economic changes, due to an increasingly industrialising world that subsequently got slapped in a face by two world wars, was going to challenge these artists into trying to find ever new ways of expressions and make sense of it all. The fairly sudden apparition of non-Western art was going to be one the most impressive foods for thoughts, just like Japanese art had been in the mid 19th century for the Impressionnists. A talent the size of Picasso was going to be needed to actually take in and make use of such a complex and rich source.

This exhibition must be placed on the top your exhibitions’ list!

I’d like to think that even the ones of you who know Picasso well, will leave the exhibition feeling they increased their understanding of how Picasso evolved as an artist and a person through his meeting with non-western works of art. It is one of these unique occasions when you can see a great artist deeply impressed by another men’s creative capabilities.

I would like to tip my hat to Yves Le Fur, the curator, who did an amazing job. You will walk through this exhibition reading the quotes and seeking out the art like a page-turning novel, eager to move on to the next one and the next one.

But hurry up, the exhibition will close on the 23th of July 2017!

“What links did Picasso maintain with non-Western arts? This question, frequently addressed, was however avoided by the artist himself for a long time. This exhibition aims to decipher a relationship born of admiration, respect and fear.”

Flavia Claes