You are the curator of the show “Picasso. Between Cubism and Classicism: 1915-1925” that will open in Rome on September 20th at the Scuderie del Quirinale and at Palazzo Barberini. What is so special about this exhibition?
Just to give you some background, there is a reason for this show, which is very simple. It is the 100th anniversary of Picasso’s trip to Rome and to Naples between February and April 1917, which he made at the instigation of Jean Cocteau and Sergei Diaghilev. Picasso, who was a Spanish citizen caught in Paris in the middle of the war, did not have military duties; and therefore he was free to travel to Rome and escape the dark, bleak atmosphere of Paris during the war.
How old was he?
He was thirty-five at the time of his trip to Italy. He had unexpectedly lost a woman he loved by the name of Eva Gouel, and Cocteau “seduced” Picasso and convinced him to work for the Ballets Russes under the leadership of Diaghilev, the great Russian impresario who in 1913 changed the artistic scene in Europe with his lavish and groundbreaking productions such as the ‘Rite of Spring’ with the music of Igor Stravinsky. This was an opportunity for Picasso, but also for Diaghilev who needed to find new blood and new ideas, and was keen to connect with the avant garde which was embodied by Picasso. At this time the Russian ballet had their headquarters at the Hotel de Russie in Rome.
A great change in the fortunes of Picasso and in the fortunes of the Ballets Russes. In Rome Picasso connected with an international group of luminaries; great artists such as Cocteau of course, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Leonide Massine the very important dancer and choreographer of the Ballets Russes, Leon Bakst, and the Italian futurists like Balla, Prampolini and Fortunato Depero. They all worked together on the sets and decors and the production of ‘Parade’ with music by Erik Satie, who remained in Paris and did not come to Rome.
The Picasso curtain of ‘Parade’ will be exhibited at Palazzo Barberini in Rome. Why are you showing it there?
Because it is enormous! It is 17 metres across, and it cannot fit anywhere else. Palazzo Barberini has a magnificent state room called the Sala Pietro da Cortona, which is within walking distance of the Scuderie del Quirinale where the main show takes place. I thought it would be nice to have the confrontation between the loosely painted, very theatrical curtain by Picasso and the very tight ceiling by the 17th century Roman painter Pietro da Cortona.
What does this exhibition demonstrate in particular?
It marks a crucial period of transition in Picasso’s career, thanks to Diaghilev. He moves away from Cubism towards Classicism. It is not only a period of great stylistic change, but it is a period of experimentation that is often misunderstood.
Picasso has often been considered as retreating from Cubism, from the avant garde, in favor of classical values, and though there is some truth to that, things are a lot more complex. In the exhibition I hope to demonstrate that Picasso plays around with different notions of style, mixing together different artistic languages, and by doing so surprising the expectations of those who saw him as the hero of the French avant garde.Did this trip to Italy greatly influence Picasso’s work?
Yes, tremendously. Working for the stage gave him the opportunity to develop some of his Cubist ideas, such as the notion of construction and assemblage. Picasso was able to use the textures and surfaces of his Cubist compositions in order to redefine space, including the space of a theatrical production. Cubism became open – not just a style, but an invaluable tool for articulating and bringing together various elements within a single scheme, such as a painting or a stage setting.
In Rome, didn’t Picasso also fell in love with a Russian dancer, Olga Khokhlova, and make many portraits of her?
Yes, in general terms Picasso loved the milieu of the Ballets Russes, and he also portrayed other dancers of the company such as Lydia Lopokova, who married the economist John Maynard Keynes a few years later. Picasso courted Olga in Rome, and they were married in Paris a year later. He was influenced by the trajectory of the lines of the dance, the movement of the ballet dancers in space, and perhaps the fluid lines of some of his drawings in the early 1920s reflect this proximity and his love for the world of the ballet.
What are the major masterpieces that will be in the show?
Luckily there will be many important and beautiful works in the show, including a large ensemble from the Musée Picasso in Paris. The show opens with ‘Homme accoudé sur une table’ from 1915 belonging to the Pinacoteca Agnelli in Turin. The three paintings that he did while in Rome will all be there, including ‘Harlequin and Woman with a Pearl Necklace’ which belongs to the Pompidou in Paris. Masterpieces from the early nineteen twenties, like ‘Harlequin with a Mirror’ from the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid, or the monumental ‘Draped woman’ from the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, and ‘La flûte de Pan’ from the Picasso Museum; and, as the last work in the exhibition, ‘The Three Dancers’ (1925) from the Tate Gallery, a painting in which Picasso symbolically bids his farewell to the world of dance. We are also exhibiting lots of designs by Picasso and a previously unknown, fascinating correspondence between Picasso and his friends from 1917, now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The catalogue of the show will be published by Skira.
Did you decide to curate this exhibition because of your family links to Picasso?
No. In 2006 I curated a large exhibition called ‘Picasso and the Theatre’ at the Schirn Kunsthalle museum in Frankfurt, and I was struck by two things. First how original and inventive Picasso’s works between 1917 and 1925 were, and second that Picasso was undoubtedly an important stage designer who not only executed commissions on behalf of Diaghilev and others, but also changed the story line, the sets, and the conception of the stage. All elements of stage design bear his imprint, one of refined elegance and simplicity within the modernist canon.Where does your love of Picasso come from?
It comes from my father, Heinz Berggruen, who was not only a collector of Picasso works but also worked closely with him in the 1950s and 60s as a book publisher. Picasso and my father created a number of illustrated books together. There was an incomparable richness in the Picasso paintings and sculptures that were at our Paris home. My brother Nicolas and I were very lucky to grow up surrounded by such great works, which reflected our father’s purity of vision. Many Cubist works, and also the ‘Harlequin with a Mirror’ that now belongs to the Thyssen museum in Madrid and which will be in the show.
Did you meet Picasso?
No, never. I was nine years old when he died. However, I believe that my older brother Nicolas and I are mentioned in the correspondence between Picasso and our father.Are you pleased with the result of your work in Rome?
Yes. I am very pleased. I was very warmly welcomed by the Romans. This is actually my third exhibition in Rome, and I think that the Scuderie del Quirinale is a very good, if at times difficult, space for exhibitions. I was lucky enough to work with a very good team, and a fantastic architect from New York, Annabelle Selldorf.
Who has financed this exhibition?
It is financed by a government agency called Ales, headed by Mario De Simoni, in cooperation with MondoMostre, a well-respected private company organizing art exhibitions all over Italy.
Are you working on something new?
Yes, some smaller exhibitions, and mostly on an illustrated book which will be a history of art collectors, in which I investigate the psychological aspects of collecting.
Since 2015 the Berggruen museum in Berlin where you are one of the board members has doubled its size. What are the main exhibits in the museum?
The core of our late father’s collection: Giacometti, Picasso, Klee, Matisse, Braque, and others; and loans by the family, including two monumental sculptures by the great contemporary German artist Thomas Schütte that are in the garden.
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30th August 2017
See also: John Richardson – “I am still obsessed by Picasso.”
and Laurent Le Bon – Director of the Picasso Museum in Paris, the Musée National Picasso.