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Picasso show will make a stop in Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

By Blake Gopnik
Sunday, October 3, 2010; E09

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond just announced what it is calling "the most important exhibition in its history," a touring show called "Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris," on view from Feb. 19 through May 15. The VMFA will be this show's only East Coast stop -- it opens in Seattle this week.

The exhibition's 176 works should give a fine overview of Picasso's career: The artist kept samples from most of his periods, from Blue to Rose to cubist to surrealist and beyond, and his heirs passed them to the French state in place of estate tax. When it comes to Picasso's sculptures, less often seen or considered, his museum does especially well, since those tended to stay in his hands. A highlight of the Richmond exhibition will be 22 works in 3-D.

What's missing from the Musée Picasso -- and therefore from this show -- are almost all the artist's landmark, iconic works, in which he made his greatest contribution to art.

The great "Demoiselles d'Avignon" is in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as is "Ma Jolie." "Guernica," after also living at MoMA for four decades, went to the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid in 1981. Picasso's "Three Musicians" is in Philadelphia. His great portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler is in Chicago. The truth is, no single museum can provide a respectable overview of the true achievement of Picasso -- or of almost any other artist.

Richmond's one-museum exhibition is what's called a "reno show": the works of a museum that's undergoing renovation toured to all the other museums that will take them. (The Musée Picasso is dropclothed through 2012). The renovating institution often saves big on insurance and storage and gets to spread word of its holdings. Not to mention, in this case, earning a huge fee. Details of the rental aren't being revealed, but the VMFA says it is spending a total of $5 million on the show.

In terms of curatorial ambition, "reno shows" don't count for much: Works from one place, put up somewhere else. No premise, no scholarship, no novel ideas. Just a bunch of big-ticket art likely to draw crowds. In an article I wrote on these shows, a curator described them as a "necessary evil, a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves."

It's more than a bit strange for a museum to bill an uncurated show touring from another museum as "the most important exhibition in its history." This one will be a pleasant moment for Picasso lovers, but nothing like a landmark in Picasso studies, as earlier shows have been.

Of course, maybe importance is being judged only by attendance. For all the fiendish difficulty of much of his art, Picasso has become insanely popular. When I visited his last major show in Paris -- a relatively mediocre one -- the line stretched forever, with people waiting hours in the December cold to get in. Luckily, Richmond's a bit warmer than that, even in February.

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