Times Art Critic

The French government may be awash in scandal but French culture is alive and calmly well. Today a long delayed, hotly disputed museum devoted to the art of Pablo Picasso opens to the public in the Marais quarter at 5 Rue de Thorigny, just blocks from Paris’ flashy and playful temple of contemporary art, the Pompidou Center.

A Musee Picasso preview earlier in the week revealed a museum building in sharp contrast to the Pompidou’s tinker-toy charms, and a cache of some 500 works spanning Picasso’s long career from the bohemian Blue Period to late days when he played court jester to his own genius.

Works were selected from Picasso’s holdings in lieu of $50 million in estate taxes after his death in 1973. Museum director Dominique Bozo claims scholarly consensus for his assertion that the collection gives France “the finest, most solid holding in the world.”

About time, too. The great Spanish expatriate lived most of his 91 years in France without ever seeing his art significantly represented in its public collections.

The Musee Picasso is a study in harmonic contrasts between art and architecture. Home is a noble Baroque 17th-Century villa, deftly remodeled into an art palace by architect Roland Simounet at a cost of around $1.5 million. Known as the Hotel Sale (Salty) because its original owner, Aubert de Fontenay, was a parvenu collector of the salt tax under Louis XIV, its original architect was an unknown mason’s son named Jean Boulier de Bourges. Nonetheless, his design has been favorably compared to work of such legendary French architects as Francois Mansart and Louis le Vau, with particular praise accorded to an impressive grand double staircase.


Initial resistance to using the classical building to house Picasso’s radically modern art gave way when it was pointed out that the artist himself preferred to live in rather ornate traditional villas, from his earlier days in Paris’ Rue de la Boetie to the chateaux of his later years, such as Notre Dame de Vie at Mougins.

Reaching agreement on housing the collection was neither the beginning nor the end of hassles that delayed the opening some six years. Just selecting works was a task to stymie Solomon. Picasso had been a pack rat who saved everything, including former wives and ex-lovers who came to form part of his entourage.

Once a house was full, Picasso would simply lock up the old place and its contents and move on. Nonplussed executors found a string of villas with a chaos of old brushes embalmed in coffee cans and masterpieces rolled in newspaper. Meantime, a bitter legal hassle developed between Picasso’s undisputedly legitimate heirs and the children of his various mistresses.

The whole mess might have ended in disaster had the heirs not had the brilliant good sense to allow the government first choice of works for the museum. By getting the pick of the litter, France was assured the finest possible museum and--according to one observer--the heirs and the art world probably avoided financial disaster. If one of them had “dumped” a huge number of Picassos on the market simultaneously, it could have seriously debased their value and thrown the whole modern art market into a tailspin.

Add predictable bureaucratic sloth about remodeling. Add the mounting aggravation it caused Picasso’s widow, Jacqueline, and you had a fizzling formula for disaster.

No one, however, would have guessed any of it during preview openings. American journalists attending the press vernissage kept expecting a crush of art world celebrities and politicians making self-congratulatory speeches. They got none of it. The principal actors had come and gone quietly the night before at a private reception.

“As to ceremony,” said Bozo quietly, “there will be none. In France we do not have to have speeches to flatter the trustees and donors. We are moving toward private involvement in the government art projects, but it is very slow.”

Thus the pleasantly nonplussed writers and photographers strolled a museum debut considerably less crowded than the Metropolitan on an average Saturday afternoon. They were bemused by the quaintly civilized French notion that people come to museums to look at the art.