This spring the Musée Picasso in Paris saw the opening of Picasso Celebration: The Collection in a New Light, a reimagining of its permanent collection by British fashion designer and longtime Maharam collaborator Sir Paul Smith. Working closely with curators Cécile Debray and Joanne Snrech, Smith’s immersive exhibition design hangs both masterworks and ephemera in thematic rooms that present the many periods of Picasso’s work against bold color and pattern.
Paul Smith: Looking through the Musée Picasso’s archive was such a big job. They've got close to 20,000 objects and artworks ranging from masterworks to drawings on envelopes and hotel notepaper. I found a copy of Vogue from 1951 on which Picasso had done little pen-and-ink drawings; he’s given one of those glamorous models a mustache and lots of other naughty bits. So I took old Vogue covers from the 1950s and wallpapered a whole room with them. I was thinking about pattern on pattern on pattern, which is something I very much do in my job—for instance, a check suit with a floral shirt, or a paisley shirt with a check tie. I also decorated a room with multiple vintage wallpapers, with Picasso’s collages sitting on top. Again, it's very pattern on pattern on pattern—much like the actual artworks.
The museum has a set of rooms linked by a wide, open corridor, and I knew I wanted Paul as Harlequin (1924) at the end of that vista. I wanted that painting to be the carrot on the stick that draws you down the hall. The wall treatment echoes the harlequin outfit that Paul, Picasso’s son, is wearing in the painting. I cut out lots of diamond shapes at different sizes, which we then stuck up on the wall so we could look at them down the corridor and see which scale worked best. Getting the size right was important. The room’s ceilings are really high and the corridor quite long so we opted for a large scale, as anything smaller would have looked too insignificant.
Walking down that corridor, you move from cubism to collage. Both rooms have wooden floors so you can hear your footsteps. And then you get to the blue room and there's silence because we chose to carpet the floor. That experience of sound was important to me. The blue room represents a period of melancholy for Picasso, after he'd lost his best friend to suicide. He was painting the homeless and the vulnerable, all in shades of one color. I was pleasantly surprised by how much people seem to like the blue room. It's actually very simple—we painted it a very dark, rich navy blue—but the curators were a little nervous about whether the paintings would work on such a dark base. But people seem to agree it enhances the paintings. They almost leap out from the walls.
I was quite taken aback by the invitation. I'm not an art historian and I'm not a Picasso expert. I wasn’t sure if I could do the job. But the brief was for Picasso to be seen in a new light. The museum was looking for something very different and gave me free rein to do whatever I wanted. I was very humbled by it—and nervous and scared. Because to be given carte blanche to do something really different means you have to be brave. And then, you’re standing there with no clothes on.
Picasso was very curious, very childlike. Not childish! Childlike. His work is so relevant today due to the fact that he was always open to trying new ideas. My company is still in business after all these years because we constantly reassess. I’m always looking at new silhouettes, new shapes, new sizes, new textures. We don't spend too much time thinking about the past; we’re always looking to tomorrow. And Picasso was always changing.
I kept asking myself throughout the process, would Picasso himself think what I'm doing with his work is good or relevant or fun? In France, there is a real tradition of wheat-pasting posters. I think Picasso might have liked the fact that, as a young artist, you can put your work out on the street for the public to see free of charge. In one of the rooms I probably like the most, we've wallpapered the whole space with Picasso posters and then put his lithographs on top. And I think he probably would have liked that.
Picasso Celebration: The Collection in a New Light is on view until August 27.