Purposeful Wandering in the New Picasso Museum

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Thierry Chesnot / Getty Images

The mistresses are all there — Fernande, Eva, Marie-Thérèse, Dora Maar, Françoise Gilot, and Geneviève — along with the wives, Olga and Jacqueline. The master's creative periods are, too — the Rose, the Blue, the African, the cubist — and his many mediums: pencil, paint, canvas, cardboard, and ceramics. The lines are there, also — long ones, even on a cold January day.

Paris's Musée Picasso reopened this past December, overdue and overbudget, after five years' renovation. The interior of the museum's mid-1600s baroque Hotel Salé in Paris's Marais has been expanded and redesigned to display more of its 5,000-piece Picasso holdings, the largest in the world. The grand central staircase, modeled after Michelangelo's for the Laurentian Library in Florence, remains its architectural focal point.

The former museum always felt intimate and idiosyncratic — like dodging as a child the mazelike rooms and stairwells of an older relative's home, replete with surprises (that collection of Picasso's painted plates!). The new galleries also contain enigmas, but more due to the placement and pairings of the work, some conceptually, some chronologically, several paradoxically — but without giving way to insight. That's not to say this one-of-a-kind museum is not worth a visit. It is full of treasures, if you know where to look.


You'll want to ascend the striking staircase, but first linger in front of Picasso's startling, nearly 15-foot cubist collage Les Femmes à Leur Toillettes (1938). Then catch the spot-on pairing of a study for Les Desmoiselles D'Avignon (1907) with the adjacent Melenesian totems Poteau de Faitage female and Poteau de Faitage male from New Caledonia, their impact on the artist's work inescapable. And be sure to stop for the enigmatic mistresses and wives, scattered throughout, as well as the harrowing Massacre en Corée (1951). 

Picasso's personal collection is on the third floor and worth spending ample time exploring, as it shows off the direct influence of contemporaries (Degas, Cezanne…). As you follow these galleries to the final exit, be sure to stop and take in Balthus' Les Enfants Hubert et Thérèse Blanchard (1937), which the artist purchased in 1941, its child subjects painted perpendicular to one another in the frame, the spark to Picasso's fire for Claude Drawing, Françoise and Paloma (1954), floors below. Now double back to take in the naïf Young Painter (1972), his face sluiced with blue, nearer the often-bottlenecked entry to the first floor. ("It took me four years to paint like a man," an aging Picasso remarked, "but a lifetime to paint like a child.")

The Musée Picasso celebrates the master’s development and his boundless creative output. Its best work reminds us that art is more than an intellectual exercise: At its most powerful, it extends beyond the head to move the heart. It stirs the passions — just as one’s mistresses might.

[The Picasso Museum: the Hôtel Salé, 5 Rue de Thorigny, Paris; museepicassoparis.fr].