Would you like to know the story behind the current exhibition at the Museu Picasso? The show’s curator reveals some of the choices and decisions in the process of conceptualizing and staging the exhibition Picasso vs. Rusiñol.
The exhibition narrative
The idea of this exhibition is to establish a discourse on the relationship between Picasso and the leading exponent of Catalan art when Picasso was living in Barcelona, Santiago Rusiñol. Although Picasso’s links to Catalan art are well known, very little has been written specifically about the relations between the two men, a circumstance which made a considerable amount of original research necessary. The innovative aspect of the discourse, which is in line with the Museum’s new commitment to ‘Rethinking Picasso’, is to make the case that Picasso was interested in Rusiñol not solely or primarily as a craftsman but for his image, for what he represented more than anyone else at that time, which was the artist par excellence. Our aim was to show how Picasso took up Rusiñol as a model for a time and then proceeded to analyse him, copy him, the portrait and finally forget him. This explains why Picasso made the 21 portraits that we know of, some of which contain a recognition of Rusiñol as a pioneer in several areas, as detailed in the exhibition.
Managing the works on loan
One of the toughest tasks in putting on any exhibition is tracking down and, above all, managing the works on loan. This tends to be a mixture of joys and disappointments: works you feel to be important for the discourse are not available, and others you had given up hoping for finally come through. This was the case with Couple in a Garden, a key piece because it shows Picasso doing a version of one of Rusiñol garden scenes, which he saw in Madrid in his youth. We eventually found this picture in an auction catalogue, and the auction house helpfully put us in contact with the owner, who agreed to loan us the work.
Couple in a Garden. Pablo Picasso. Madrid, 1901. Charcoal and wash on paper. Private collection.
As I will explain in a moment, it was particularly important for this exhibition to get hold of as many of Picasso’s portraits of Rusiñol as possible. This meant that all of us who worked on the show — basically with the coordinator of the exhibition, Isabel Cendoya, and the Museum’s director, Pepe Serra — had to devote a lot of time and effort to obtaining the pieces.
Exhibition criteria and itinerary
After four years of research, the very considerable body of findings posed complex problems for the physical implementation of what is essentially an intellectual discourse in a space that has its peculiarities and limitations. It was a question of showing not only the influences but also the points of confluence between the two artists, establishing explicit iconographic and thematic comparisons and also tracing conceptual links, by definition more difficult to show in an exhibition. All of these factors conditioned the adoption of exhibition criteria.
The first challenges had to do with the format of the works. Some of the comparisons which demonstrate Picasso’s interest in Rusiñol (versions of some of his pictures, portraits of him, etc…) meant we had to put large-format oils (Rusiñol) next to small-format drawings and in some cases sketches (Picasso) in the same space. The solution was to place the small works on lecterns next to the large-format works and give them a softer lighting.
Another challenge was the exhibition itinerary, the design of which was entrusted to Lluís Pera. The sequence could not be strictly chronological because of the twenty year difference in age between the two men. For this reason we opted for a chronological itinerary in the first and last rooms, and a thematic layout in the rest of the itinerary.
In almost every area there is a portrait of Rusiñol by Picasso, linked to some part of the exhibition discourse. The exhibition begins with the adolescent Picasso who arrives in Barcelona as a student of Fine Art (1895) and ends with a Picasso on the verge of leaving Barcelona for Paris (1903-04): in other words, the exhibition itinerary is articulated around Picasso, not Rusiñol. Having obtained the greatest possible number of portraits, we had to decide how to position them: one option was to put them all in the same room and order them chronologically. This idea was rejected because we felt that certain portraits were of key significance in certain areas because there was a direct reference. But this posed another problem: it made it impossible to show one of the main theses of the exhibition: the complete sequence of the 21 portraits which clearly reveals the process of Picasso’s curiosity-admiration-indifference toward Rusiñol. In the end we decided to have an open display case in the central corridor containing 21 back-lit methacrylate sheets with silk-screened reproductions of each of the portraits.
Guided tour by the curator of the exhibition Eduard Vallès.
This final montage based on reproductions, deliberately situated away from the original works, presents an autonomous account, a narrative that for all its modesty embodies the essence of the exhibition. In short, it puts forward a very explicit iconological reading which parallels Picasso’s time in Barcelona and his interest/lack of interest in Rusiñol. This process, focused on this one artist — and, by extension, on Catalan art — is in fact a paradigm of the processes by which Picasso absorbed and phagocytized his artistic — and personal — milieu. Ultimately, the aim of this exhibition is to explain Picasso, and this discourse is directed at the very heart of his artistic modus operandi: that of a man always on the qui vive and always ready to take a bite of whatever comes his way. With a bit of luck we’ve managed to show that.
Museum conservator and curator of the exhibition
If you have visited the exhibition or seen images of it, what do you think of the design and montage? Are there any changes you would make?