50 Years After Picasso’s Death, The Musée Picasso Celebrates By Removing All Of His Art
When Sophie Calle was 6 years old, her father framed a drawing she made. Her grandmother responded enthusiastically, declaring that there appeared to be “a Picasso in the family.”
Calle’s grandmother was right. Nearly seven decades after Calle drew it, the picture now hangs on the ground floor of the Musée Picasso in Paris. Here, it offers a fitting introduction to a most unusual tribute to the famous 20th-century artist on the 50th anniversary of his death.
Although Calle is not quite as famous as Picasso, she is one of the most significant artists alive today, and perhaps the only one capable of reassessing Picasso’s outsized reputation without pandering or competing for attention. Previously, Calle engaged with the art of past masters by having museum staff describe their paintings and hanging the written descriptions in their place. She also once anonymously hired a private investigator to follow her, reporting on her movements as a sort of outsourced autobiography. As an artist, Calle excels at creating space for the artistic expression of her ideas by others, entering into an ambiguous collaboration with them that investigates the nature of creativity.
In her Musée Picasso exhibition, Calle treats Picasso as obliquely as she ordinarily treats herself. Almost every Picasso painting and sculpture has been removed from view. Those that remain have been shrouded, with descriptions printed on the shrouds. The descriptions were provided by museum personnel ranging from curators to guards, all from memory while the paintings were on loan. “I veiled them in the memories they leave behind in their absence,” she explains in an accompanying text, leaving unspoken the myriad contradictions that make the descriptions more stimulating than the familiar canvases they obscure.
Even more than Picasso’s artwork, Calle appears to be interested in his fears about losing his creative faculties. Given his ego, there was never a phobia about running out of ideas. He was afraid, instead, of going blind or dying.
Blindness is eloquently addressed in a body of work that Calle created in the ‘80s. She started by asking blind people their vision of beauty, and then did her best to photograph what they told her. For instance, one subject informed her that “green is beautiful, because every time I like something I’m told it’s green.” Calle’s photograph is a picture of grass.
Calle’s treatment of death is more comprehensive, taking up much of the museum’s floor space (an understandable decision given that the exhibition has been organized 50 years after Picasso died, never having lost his eyesight). Typical of Calle, the approach is indirect, focusing instead on her own inevitable death. And akin to the autobiography she had a PI author on her behalf, she has outsourced the dirty work.
Both literally and figuratively, the heavy lifting was done by Hôtel Drouot, the legendary French auctioneer that specializes in selling off large estates. Calle hired Drouot to inventory her possessions, using the process they would ordinarily employ posthumously. A glossy 218-page catalogue lists her furniture and clothing, as well as the art and collectibles she has amassed over a lifetime. All of these objects are staged in the Musée Picasso, inviting visitors to gawk at items such as a Jean Prouvé lounge chair and a Christian Lacroix bustier. There is also a museum-quality collection of works by artists ranging from Roy Lichtenstein to Cindy Sherman to Louise Bourgeois. (Seemingly the only modern or contemporary artist missing from her collection is Pablo Picasso.)
Calle describes this extravagant display as a “dress rehearsal,” which she has enhanced by commissioning her own obituary. It’s all very Calle and emphatically not Picasso.
Is Calle mocking Picasso’s pretentions to immortality? Perhaps there’s some of that. But her mockery of what he held most dear is also an act of distancing. Much as Picasso’s paintings are seen afresh in other people’s memories, the mythic figure of the 20th century’s most famous artist gains new life by crowding him out of his own museum.