Pablo Picasso, 1933, photo Man Ray © Man Ray Trust/2010 ProLitteris, Zurich

To celebrate its centenary, Kunsthaus Zurich restages the mythical 1932 retrospective that was to establish Picasso as one of the most radical artists of the 20th century. Originally curated by Picasso himself, the show offers insight into his creative genius and keys to understanding his work. The last major Picasso retrospective took place 30 years ago.

There has not been a major Picasso retrospective since the one that took place in 1980 at MoMA, the New York Museum of Modern Art.

Exhibitions with Picasso’s works are programmed continuously all over the world (see list of recent examples at end), but none of the displays can claim to illustrate the meaningful journey of an artist into his creativity through his own selection of works.

Picasso, his first museum exhibition 1932 at the Kunsthaus in Zurich until January 30, 2011 revives the show that took place at Kunsthaus Zurich in autumn 1932 and in which Picasso played a major curatorial role.

Pablo Picasso, Mandolin and Guitar (Mandoline et guitare), 1924, Oil with sand on canvas, 140,7 x 200,3 cm
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York © 2010 ProLitteris, Zurich

A first version of the exhibition had taken place in Paris in the spring of 1932 at the private Georges Petit gallery.

Piqued by his rivalry with Matisse, who had exposed in the same venue a year before, Picasso selected emblematic pieces from 1899 onwards, which he scattered amongst the large-scale compositions that he had feverishly prepared for the show.

Discovering Picasso’s more recent works, the then director of the Kunsthaus, Wilhelm Wartmann, who had travelled to Paris to see the show, had the foresight to distinguish that Picasso “was in a league of his own” and dropped his original idea of a joint Picasso/Braque/Léger presentation.

“What we have done at the Kunsthaus is a retrospective in retrospective,” curator Tobi Bezzola says of a project that took five years to complete. Because the original catalogue contained no illustrations, he and his collaborators have painstakingly reassembled the exhibition’s puzzle.

Pablo Picasso, Pitcher and Fruit Bowl (Pichet et coupe de fruits), 1931, Oil on canvas , 130,2 x 194,9 cm
Saint Louis Art Museum, Legat Morton D. May © 2010 ProLitteris, Zurich

They were able to identify and locate the 240 works that were included in the original Zurich exhibition and have obtained the loan of more than 100 of them.

Interestingly, the largest number of works in the 1932 exhibition came from a collection in Lausanne belonging to Dr. Gottlieb Friedrich Reber (1880-1959), who was described during a visit to America in 1930 as “without any question the most important collector of modern art in Europe today”.

The timing for the first exhibition was perfect, Bezzola believes, because, coming right after the stock market crash, a number of collectors, including Reber, needed to sell, whilst gallery owners and art dealers needed to collaborate to survive. The status of the Kunsthaus allowed the sale of the works on show.

“The scientific reconstitution of a historically important show,” he indicates, “was the legitimatization to knock on important doors” and secure loans that would have been virtually impossible to obtain otherwise.

But not a single painting was obtained without lengthy negotiations, he points out. More than 40 institutions and countless private collectors have agreed to part with their works during the show, which is exclusive to Zurich and will travel nowhere else.

Installation view, photo ©

“We toyed with the idea of holding it in the galleries of the Kunsthaus where it originally took place, but this proved to be impossible for reasons of flow and access of visitors and also because it would have meant emptying out our permanent collections.”

Insurance costs, which already represent two thirds of the budget, would have soared even higher.

Because this ruled out the idea of visually recreating the original show, Bezzalo decided on an installation that clearly divides Picasso’s earlier production from his conceptual breakthrough in the late 20s and early 30s. “I really wanted to preserve two distinctive parts to the show,” he indicates.

Visitors first walk into an intimate display of Picasso’s pink and blue periods and Cubist and neo-classical phase that resonate gently against walls painted in the Kunsthaus’s signature green-grey.

Another section is devoted to Picasso’s immense ability as a draughtsman, reminding us that he was not just a painter.

Loves of Jupiter and Semele, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, 1930, Copperplate etching on paper, 22.5 x 17.2 cm
Kunsthaus Zürich, Collection of Prints and Drawings © 2010 ProLitteris, Zurich

The selection of paintings is an instant lesson in art history covering the beginning of the last century, whilst tossing up clues to Picasso’s evolution from one style to the next, particularly the influence of African art on subsequent Cubism.

Then suddenly a wide open space, with glaringly white walls that are fanned out diagonally, introduces visitors to Picasso’s febrile new production leading up to the 1932 exhibition. Following his encounter with the blond Marie-Thérèse Walther who was 27 years younger, the 50-year-old artist entered into a period of explosive creativity.

“I wanted these works to be visible together at a glance,” Bezzola explains, “to allow us to better understand the relationship between them.”

Installation view, photo © FBM Studio Zürich

Picasso, he points out, worked simultaneously in several styles and was constantly experimenting in different mediums. “He would work on a neo-classical composition in the morning, launch into Cubism in the afternoon and finish with Surrealism.”

“This exhibition allows people to see the elements that he chose and combined,” the curator underlines, as well as the variety of techniques in which he experimented, including adding sand to oil paint.

Shocked by the apparent chaos of the artist, the world-famous psychologist and psychotherapist C.G. Jung pronounced the painter a schizophrenic, claiming that his pictures “immediately reveal their alienation from feeling”.

“One has to remember that the flow of information was very different at that time and people were easily confused,” Bezzola points out.

“But by 1932, Picasso had developed most of his formal repertory, so this exhibition can be said to cover the important part of his oeuvre,” he suggests.

Pablo Picasso, Bathers with Beach Ball (Baigneuses au ballon), 1928, Oil on canvas, 15,9 x 21,9 cm
Private collection © 2010 ProLitteris, Zurich

It is also an exhibition of historical importance, since it “may have been one of the first times a living artist was invited to present his works in a museum environment,” the curator says, pointing out that the Zurich Kunsthaus was actually founded as an artist’s association and not a museum.

The concept of presenting contemporary art by a living artist was to lay the foundations for the creation of modern art museums, but only several decades later.

Asked if there were any pieces that he regretted not including in the exhibition, Bezzola mentions the sensuous masterpiece Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, a portrait of Walter that Picasso is said to have painted on a single day in March 1932.

Cecil Beaton, Pablo Picasso, 1933. Courtesy the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s
(not in exhibition)

To be loaned from the Brody estate, where it has been since 1951, the painting was sold one month ago by Christies following the recent decease of Sidney Brody. It sold for more than 106 million US dollars, the highest amount ever paid for a work of art in an auction.

“Traditionally, art collectors love to be involved in the art world,” Bezzola observes, “but I am now encountering for the first time collectors who are not in the least bit interested in art. They are simply investors who are approachable only through their lawyers.”

Major works of art will predictably become more difficult to expose. Combined with mounting insurance costs, exhibitions like the current one at Kunsthaus Zurich may become a rarity.

To gain overall insight into the kaleidoscope mind of a genius, this might be your last chance.

Until January 30, 2011

Kunsthaus Zürich
Heimplatz 1
CH–8001 Zurich


Opening times:
Sat/Sun/Tues 10am–6pm
Wed–Fri 10am–8pm
Closed Mondays

Recent examples of how Picasso keeps museums busy and publics flocking through recent partial expos: Picasso: themes and variations (MoMa, New York), Picasso: The Mediterranean Years (Gagosian, London), Klee meets Picasso (Zentrum Klee, Bern), Picasso and the masters (Grand Palais, Paris), Picasso: portrait of soul (Suntory, Tokyo), only a few examples of many more.

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

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