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Anne Baldassari, general commissioner, president and chief curator of the Musee National Picasso in Paris, is seen April 24, 2012, during a media preview of the Art Gallery of Ontario's Pablo Picasso exhibition. (Fred Lum/Photo by Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Anne Baldassari, general commissioner, president and chief curator of the Musee National Picasso in Paris, is seen April 24, 2012, during a media preview of the Art Gallery of Ontario's Pablo Picasso exhibition. (Fred Lum/Photo by Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Visual Arts

Picasso returns to Toronto: Are you ready to 'be nude in front of the works'? Add to ...

“Beautiful, so beautiful!”

This flight of lyricism came late last week from Anne Baldassari as she wended her way through the workers and technicians at the Art Gallery of Ontario, who were noisily installing the last of the 147 paintings and drawings, mixed-media work and sculptures that make up Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris.

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The exhibition, opening next Tuesday in Toronto, is indeed beautiful – a heady, engaging chronological survey, exclusive in Canada to the AGO, of virtually every facet of the protean Spanish genius’s oeuvre, starting with drawings from the early 20th century to paintings finished in the years and months just before his death, at 92, in 1973.

Still, Baldassari’s seeming spontaneous outburst of enthusiasm was rather surprising. Even to non-specialists, Picasso is one of the most, well ... exposed artists in history, all those plush, reclining nudes and women with eyes on their noses and shards of geometry the stuff of familiarity (and advertising parodies), not the shock of the new.

And if anyone’s entitled to be, if not blasé, then at least calm and collected about Picasso, it’s this grey-haired sylph in wire-rims and sneakers.

After all, Baldassari has been associated since the early nineties with the Paris musée – a repurposed mid-17th-century château that houses thousands of artworks Picasso’s heirs donated to settle the immense tax debt on the artist’s estate – and was named its president and chief curator in 2005. She’s written tens of thousands of words on the man and his art, given umpteen lectures, helped oversee the organization and mounting of many shows, including 2008’s Picasso et les maîtres. Through all this, she seems to have maintained an admirable passion.

Baldassari’s also been travelling a lot, ever since it was decided, in 2008, to close the musée to prepare for a multimillion-dollar renovation, expected to be completed in early 2013. To help finance the changes, Baldassari has been taking sundry iterations of Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso to locales as varied as Madrid, Abu Dhabi, Tokyo, Helsinki, Sydney and San Francisco, among others. Another smaller touring exhibition is set to open in a couple of weeks in Hong Kong, having already been seen in Taipei, Shanghai and Chengdu.

Toronto hasn’t had a heavy-duty Picasso show since 1964’s Picasso and Man in what was then called the Art Gallery of Toronto. Unsurprisingly, the AGO’s going all out this time, setting aside nine rooms to accommodate such classics as Two Women Running on the Beach (1922), Man with a Mandolin (1911) and The Kiss (1969). Indeed, for the first time since it opened, in 1974, all the contents of the Henry Moore Sculpture Centre have been removed to give the Picassos (and audiences) sufficient breathing room.

One thing visitors won’t be getting is lots of information on the walls. Each objet will be identified in situ – but there is only one substantive text panel, at the show’s start, while each of the exhibition’s seven sections will be prefaced only by a single quotation, such as “Art is never chaste” (for the grouping called Surreal Anxiety and Desire/1924-34).

It’s completely intentional, of course. Didactic panels bunch up viewers and tend to mediate, even “blind” their experience of the art, Baldassari said.

“What we need to do is go freely to the work. We have to have the courage to be nude in front of the works. An exhibition is not a text, is not a book. We don’t need any explanation at the first level of contact ... to respect it, to put people under its power. What is an exhibition but a machine to exhibit people to the work? We need to be in a direct relation, without any ‘facilities,’ no small stories, no narratives.”

Picasso liked to say that his paintings, “finished or not, are the pages from my diary.” But viewers of the AGO’s Masterpieces will strive mostly in vain to read the exhibition as autobiography. If anything, the exhibition is a record of Picasso’s pictorialism, the lateral play of his thought and processes, not, say, his sexual conquests.

One of its strengths, in fact, is its softening of our tendency to slot Picasso’s output into fixed categories or stages such as “the Rose Period,” or “analytic cubism.” For instance, smack-dab in the middle of a wall of cubistic creations circa 1911, Baldassari has placed a lovely neoclassical artist-and-muse painting that seems to have migrated from 1904 but, in fact, was completed at the same time as he was deep into his experiments with collage, cubism and mixed media. A 1918 portrait of his first wife, Olga Kokhlova, is more homage to Ingres’s Comtesse d’Haussonville, from 1845, than anticipation of Bather Opening a Beach Hut, painted in 1928.

Picasso was “about freedom,” Baldassari observed, “impurity ... playing all the registers. He was free to be absolutely open to his own creations. He was free not to be a cubist.”

Within some of the previous exhibitions, Baldassari shaped mini-shows tailored to the milieu or history of the host country. The Madrid exhibition of 2008, featuring almost 600 works, the largest to date of any Masterpieces presentation, had “an enormous show” in the Museo Reina Sofia devoted to the circumstances behind and preparations for Guernica (1937), one of Picasso’s most famous paintings and a highlight of the Reina Sofia’s permanent collection. Toronto, by contrast, never seems to have found its way onto Picasso’s radar, with the result that the AGO show is what Baldassari calls “a large platform” from which, she hopes, other, more focused and thematic collaborations will spring.

“Like Picasso, we need to go on.”

Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris opens May 1 at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and continues until Aug. 26. Look Again, a complementary exhibition about the gallery’s historic 1964 Picasso show, runs through Sept. 30 (for more information, visit www.ago.net ).

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