Paul Smith, the British fashion designer, is best known for his vibrant and colorful designs that are paired with impeccable tailoring. Smith’s mantra has long been “classic with a twist.” Even still, it might come as a surprise that the Musée Picasso Paris gave him carte blanche to rehang its permanent collection to mark the 50th anniversary of Pablo Picasso’s death next month.
Smith’s first visit to Paris, where he had the chance to explore Picasso’s personal archive of some 200,000 objects, for the show’s planning happened just before the pandemic, at the invitation of the museum’s then president Laurent Le Bon (now the president of the Centre Pompidou). When Cécile Debray took over the reins, she decided to inject contemporary art into her predecessor’s project.
“A museum, especially a monographic one, should not be petrified but connected with its time—open to debate, criticism,” Debray told ARTnews during a walkthrough of the exhibition. “Our mission is to keep Picasso’s legacy alive and see it into the 21st century.”
Among the dozen modern and contemporary artists now included is Mickalene Thomas, who has embroidered rhinestones over a reproduction of Picasso’s 1945 Pitch and Skeleton, an abstracted still life in deep gray tones that recalls “the extreme violence of the context within which the work was created, in 1945, was perpetuated through the repression of the various minorities evoked,” according to a wall text. Thomas’s striking Resist #8 (2022), which tackles the subject of police violence and systemic racism in America, hangs next to its source material in a room devoted to the representation of war.
Among the source images that Thomas juxtaposes are photographs from civil rights demonstrations from the 1950 and ’60s and recent ones from the Black Lives Matter protests, which “intermingle with an evocation of Sarah Baartman, exhibited in Europe at the beginning of the 19th century as the “Hottentot Venus”, and with a representations of the singer Lizzo, in the center, celebrated for her militant anti-racist positions and against fatphobia,” according to Debray’s catalogue essay. In pairing Picasso’s work with contemporary artists like Thomas, shows just how extensive Picasso’s influence on art is to be sure, but it also highlights how that influence can be critiqued, cracked open, and refashioned into something entirely its own.
A section called “Biomorphism” draws a parallel between artistic creation and biological reproduction and includes a confrontation between Picasso’s art and Louise Bourgeois’s Cumul I. “She is the only woman artist who can compete with Picasso when it comes to featuring sexuality,” Debray added.
Working with the museum’s conservator Joanne Snrech, Smith paid close attention to the lighting and perspective for the collection rehang. An all-pink room, filled with studies for Picasso’s iconic Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, features two trapezes of light that seem to have been cut out from the wall, evoking the simplification of forms Picasso was experimenting beginning in 1907.
From this room, you can glimpse a view of what else this visit to a new Musée Picasso has to offer—it’s breathtaking. The real tour de force by Smith was painting all 24 rooms of the three-floor museum in color—floral wallpaper, deep navy blues, the aforementioned pink—for the very first time. “I was pretty scary,” Smith admitted in an interview.
Added Debray, “This new contrast with the museum’s all white ceilings makes you want to look up,” which in turn should prompt better appreciation for chandeliers by Diego Giacometti (Alberto’s brother) that have hung there since the museum opened in 1985.
Before turning to fashion, Paul Smith dreamed of becoming a racing cyclist, so it’s no wonder that this rehang is introduced with Picasso’s Bull’s Head, a 1942 readymade fashioned from the seat and handlebars of a bicycle that faces a wall covered with equivalent pieces from day-to-day life. Smith’s intervention relies on three principles: the power of repeated patterns, the power of monochromes, and the power of Picasso’s motifs themselves. (Smith’s own sketches for the rehang are reserved for the catalogue; it is a Picasso show, not a Paul Smith show, after all.)
The second gallery celebrates 13-year-old Picasso, the age at which he began editing his own satirical magazines, which became a lifelong obsession. A scribbled over May 1951 issue of Vogue issue inspired Smith to create a backdrop made from covers of the iconic fashion publication. Similarly, for a section on Picasso’s collages and assemblages, Smith created his own collage from flowery vintage wallpapers sourced from the US, while the second-to-last room is plastered with posters from Picasso shows, which Smith wanted to appear as if they had been quickly glued onto the wall, complete with wrinkles and puckers. “Picasso would put together sculptures from everyday objects—pattern on pattern, on pattern, on pattern is something I do a lot in my work,” he said.
That attention to texture and relief continues throughout the display: a room dedicated to bullfighting (Picasso attended and painted corridas throughout his life) is painted a red as shiny as fresh blood, while the room for Blue Period works is entirely blue and one for his series of variations on Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863) is bathed in green. Elsewhere, Smith has borrowed motifs directly from Picasso’s works, like a blue-and-yellow-diamond-checkered wall from Paul as Harlequin (1924) or stripes inspired taken from the background of a portrait of Dora Maar, from his 1930s series “Femmes assises.”
The Spanish master’s legendary Breton shirt is the focus of another gallery. Beginning in 1997, Congolese artist Chéri Samba started painting Picasso in this exact attire as a critique; his Quand il n’y avait plus rien d’autre que… L’Afrique restait une pensée (When there was nothing left…Africa remained a thought) is on view here. “These paintings in which I depict myself with Picasso are a way of paying tribute to all the supposedly anonymous African artists who made our traditional masks and who inspired Cubism,” Samba says in an interview included in the catalogue. “It is a way of saying that there are artists all over the world, and the West, which did not regard our masks as art, is hypocritical. I denounce this hypocrisy.”
The most impressive of these contemporary additions to the museum’s rehang is Retablo, an eight-panel installation by Argentine artist Guillermo Kuitca showing a road that disappears into a mass of geometrical forms, a nod to Picasso’s Cubist period. (Nearby hangs a landscape by Paul Cezanne that Picasso once owned, a way to “play with various times and viewpoints,” Debray said.)
In Kuitca’s interview for the catalogue, the artist says, “I wanted to immerse the viewer in the work, a common aim for painters but to be precise I wanted to push this desire to its materiality to a physically concrete degree. You must stand in front of it, you are the fourth wall of the theatre. I eventually understood that the work is painting inside and a sculpture outside.”
Smith designed a collection based on the work of artist Anni Albers in 2018, and during this year’s Paris Fashion Week, several designers debuted collections nodding to the art world, like Paco Rabanne’s dresses with reproductions of paintings by Salvador Dalí. Might a Picasso collection be in the offing for Paul Smith? “I am not a fan of one artist in particular,” the designer said. “Staying relevant in fashion is difficult—you take from movies, graphic designs, music. Working on this exhibit has made me realize that a lot of what I do is about reassessing, never being satisfied. You’ve got to think laterally all the time.”