ZURICH (Reuters Life!) - In September 1932, already a world-famous artist, Pablo Picasso drove from Paris to Zurich for the opening of a mega-exhibition of his works that was to mark a turning point in Western cultural history.
Although he curated the exhibits himself and stayed at a luxury lakeside hotel nearby for two days, hobnobbing with art connoisseurs and critics, he mysteriously never went to see the show at the city’s Kunsthaus Museum.
This autumn, and to celebrate its own centenary, the Kunsthaus has recreated the landmark exhibition — or something under a half of it — and it has been pulling in the crowds.
For the original, the then already 51-year-old Picasso chose the 229 works himself — paintings, lithographs and a handful of bronze sculptures — to be displayed.
“In effect,” says Tobia Bezzola who put together the new show, “he curated this one too.”
At a time when contemporary art was normally displayed in private and commercial galleries, the 1932 exhibition was probably the first retrospective of a living artist to be put on in a museum, cultural historians say.
Covering the Spanish-born Picasso’s output from 1899, when he was an 18-year-old prodigy in Barcelona, through the Pink, Blue, Cubist, Constructivist and semi-Surrealist periods that followed when he moved to Paris at the turn of the 20th century, it set a trend that swept the art world after World War Two and still dominates it.
With its catalogues, in cheap and expensive versions, its posters and press releases, the first Kunsthaus show was a prototype of the art blockbusters that boost revenues for major and minor museums around the world today.
Not that it brought much cash in then, a time of deep economic woes as the world moved into the Great Depression of the 1930s, despite — for the time — an impressive total of 32,000 visitors during the two months it was on.
A reflection of the cash-strapped age was that none of the canvases which Picasso offered for sale at the Kunsthaus were bought except one, by the museum itself.
That Cubist work, “Guitar on a Gueridon” of 1915, is one of the central pieces at the new show, which opened on October 15, closes on January 30 and has already hosted 250,000 visitors.
Only about 100 pieces, including engravings and three bronze heads, are there — loaned by over 40 art institutions worldwide and many private collectors — and they include many of the best-known Picassos of his first 50 years.
Among them are a penetrating portrait of depression in “The Melancholy Woman” of 1902, the sensual “Girl in a Chemise” of 1905, the Cubist “Man with a Clarinet” of 1911, “Harlequin Musician” of 1924, the miniature “Players with a Beachball” of 1928, and “Sleeping Woman with Mirror” of 1932.
Kunsthaus guide and art historian Paula Lauger suggested that one of the most colorfully stunning canvases in the latest show — the playfully erotic “The Yellow Belt” — may also provide an answer to the mystery of why Picasso did not visit the first show after putting so much effort into it.
The famously priapic artist had brought to Zurich his wife, former Ballets Russes dancer Olga Khokhlova and their son Paulo, and the clearly marked sub-title of The Yellow Belt is “Marie-Therese Walter” — a model with whom he began a long and secret affair when she was a 17-year-old in 1927, Lauger said.
“I think, perhaps, Picasso just didn’t want to upset Olga.”
(For more details on the exhibition, please go to the Kunsthaus website: www.kunsthaus.ch)
Editing by Jonathan Lynn and Paul Casciato