After a five-year renovation, the Musée Picasso has reopened with more of the master’s works on display than ever.
With several changes of opening date, much gossip, and a last-minute change of director, the renovation of the Musée Picasso Paris has been the French cultural melodrama of 2014. On October 25, though, on what would have been Picasso's 133rd birthday, it at last reopened after five years of refurbishment. The exhibition space has been doubled in size, the layout simplified, and now many more works are on show than ever before.
The museum has always had the double appeal of the superb collection, donated to the French state after the artist's death, and the Marais mansion in which it is housed, built in the 1650s for Pierre Aubert de Fontenay, collector of the gabelle, or salt tax, which gave the building its nickname: Hôtel Salé. The restoration has preserved the modernist white boxes created by the architect Roland Simounet in the original Eighties conversion, with a new entrance at the side through the former servants' quarters retaining the grand sculpted stairway with its cherubs, garlands and busts of Jupiter and Apollo.
Paintings are hung alongside sculptures, prints and drawings. According to the ex-director (or ex-president, to use the French terminology) Anne Baldessari, who created the inaugural hang, this allows one "to put the focus on the work process, the step from drawing to painting and the intensity of the creative process".
A largely chronological route takes you from Picasso's earliest works as a teenager in Spain — including the Little Girl in a Red Dress, painted in 1895 when he was about 14 – to paintings produced shortly before his death in 1973. There are also some interesting rooms grouped thematically - self-portraits, guitars, bullfighting, portraits of women - tracing recurring subjects in countless styles. A room of self-portraits includes the powerful blue-period version of 1901, a nude from 1906 and one self-portrait wearing a hat as Van Gogh.
Works are simply labelled but each visitor is given a booklet guide. It leaves the visitor, says Baldessari, alone with the works, in an inspiring hang that allows each piece of art more space than before.
There are studies for the Demoiselles d'Avignon alongside sculptures from New Caledonia, and rooms from the cubist period, including what is considered the first modern collage. Although he sometimes neared abstraction, Picasso chose to stay in the figurative sphere, defending his freedom as a painter to choose which style he wished to employ. The Large Nude in a Red Armchair of 1929 is all gangling limbs, pinks, violets and black slits; an extraordinarily brutal guitar composed of floorcloth, nails and metal spikes is almost like a weapon. Then there are the dark grey and black distorted heads of the Spanish Civil War years, the malevolently allegorical Cat Eating a Bird, and the late variants on Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe.
After the main circuit, there are two other routes around the museum. On the third floor, spaces have been created for Picasso's own art collection, including Cézanne's Bathers and L'Estaque, some first-class Renoirs, and paintings by Modigliani, Matisse and a young Miró. In the cellars, the Parcours des Ateliers gathers outsize works, such as the 1956 metal group The Bathers, rescued from the garden where it was corroding, alongside documents and archive photos. It's a fast-forward journey through an oeuvre that is, as Baldessari puts it, like a history of the 20th century.
Musée Picasso Paris, 5 rue de Thorigny, 75003 Paris (0033 1 85 560036; museepicassoparis.fr). Open Tues-Fri 11.30am-6pm; Sat-Sun 9.30am-6pm; admission €11 ($15.73)
The Telegraph, London