Thu, Jun 15, 2006 - Page 15 News List

Picasso's belated homecoming

A trio of anniversaries has prompted a large exhibition of the artist's work, and the return of his paintings to Spain

By Alan Riding  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , MADRID

Picasso's portrait of his mistress, Dora Maar With Cat, sold for US$95 million at Sotheby's on May 4, becoming the second most expensive painting in auction history.

PHOTOS: AGENCIES

Museums find anniversaries hard to resist. And this time Picasso is offering Spain a feast: 125 years since he was born here; 70 years since, in absentia, he was named director of the Prado Museum here during the Spanish Civil War; and 25 years since Guernica, his famous anti-war painting, arrived here after its long exile in New York.

In today's art world this more than justifies a major retrospective. Picasso: Tradition and Avant-Garde, which runs through Sept. 3, is installed at both the Prado and the Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid's principal gallery for modern and contemporary art.

But there is more to this than lighting candles.

Since Picasso died in France in 1973, and above all since his nemesis, the long-ruling dictator General Francisco Franco, died in 1975, Spain has yearned to reclaim its most famous 20th-century artist. The problem is that Picasso never set foot in this country after 1934, and while his paintings are in museums and collections around the world, there are still relatively few in Spain.

Yet Spain holds one strong card: It alone can claim to be the primary source of Picasso's inspiration. From his first recorded visit to the Prado in 1895 at 14, young Picasso engaged in a dialogue with Spain's greatest painters, notably El Greco, Velazquez and Goya.

A decade later he seemingly went his own way, creating Cubism with Braque in Paris, yet his Spanish roots never ceased to nourish his art.

This connection, then, is perhaps the best excuse for this exceptional exhibition, which demonstrates convincingly that an artist who spent most of his life outside Spain remained profoundly Spanish.

Picasso has now also taken his place, at least symbolically, among Spain's greats in the Prado. In practice, his work will eventually return to the Reina Sofia, but this show resembles a state visit.

"We want Picasso to feel at home here," said Carmen Gimenez, the Spanish-born curator of 20th-century art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, who organized this two-part exhibition with Francisco Calvo Serraller, a Spanish art historian and himself a former director of the Prado.

So why two sites for a show that, by blockbuster standards, is not immense?

The simple answer is that Velazquez's masterpiece Las Meninas cannot leave the Prado, while Picasso's Guernica cannot leave the Reina Sofia. But these hurdles spawned creative responses: At the Prado Picasso now rubs shoulders with Spain's old masters as well as with Titian, Veronese, Rubens and Poussin; and at the Reina Sofia, Guernica confronts famous execution scenes by Goya and Manet.

The Prado, which has cleared its long central gallery for the occasion, is presenting an overview of Picasso's lifetime work, but the oils have been chosen for their relevance to the past. The display is also not accidental: Paintings by his historical mentors hang on temporary partitions, while those of Picasso line the gallery.

"I wanted Picasso to be on the walls of the Prado," Gimenez said, evidently pleased with the results.

The show's premise is quickly validated. Arriving visitors face El Greco's magnificent Holy Trinity. Then, almost immediately, the elongated and angular figure of the crucified Jesus can be seen echoed in paintings from Picasso's Blue Period, notably La Vie, Woman Ironing and Woman in a Chemise. Interestingly, when Picasso was painting these oils, from 1903 to 1905, El Greco had yet not returned to vogue.

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