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Picasso Art Displayed in Elegant Paris Mansion

February 26, 1989|PETER A. COOPER | Cooper is a New York City free-lance writer

PARIS — For those with even a modest interest in art and the work of Pablo Picasso, the Musee Picasso is a delightful place to spend a few hours. But for Picasso aficionados, the museum is something close to heaven on earth.

Tucked away on a narrow street in Paris' historic Marais quarter, the Musee Picasso is housed in an elegant 17th-Century mansion called L'Hotel Sale.

In previous incarnations, the house served as the Venetian embassy, the official residence of the Archbishop of Paris and, during the French Revolution, a rare book depository.

The mansion takes its name from a salt-tax collector who built it in the 1660s.

Donated by Family

Ironically, another type of tax was responsible for assembling the museum's collection. Most of it was donated by Picasso's family under a recent French law that permits the payment of works of art in lieu of inheritance taxes.

Thus, the collection offers a unique perspective because it includes paintings that were particularly close to the artist's heart.

The museum opened in 1985 following extensive renovations that preserved the historic character of the mansion. The museum is filled with more than 3,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, ceramics and other inventions spanning Picasso's long and prolific career.

All major periods of the artist's career are represented: early Blue and Rose around the turn of the century; experiments in Cubism and surrealism between 1910 and 1930; the violent, sometimes bizarre work he produced around World War II, and the whimsical, intensely colored pieces that marked the final years of his life.

One can easily spend a whole day browsing through the four-story mansion, which includes 20 rooms devoted to the museum's permanent collection, several more for temporary exhibitions, a sculpture garden and an audio-visual room.

A room devoted to Picasso's own collection includes works by such artist as Paul Cezanne, Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse, Joan Miro, Pierre Renoir and Auguste Henri Rousseau.

The museum also includes a well-stocked book and poster shop and a pleasant cafeteria in a separate building that once housed the mansion's service quarters.

There is even a small, richly appointed chapel, which the original owner presumably used for prayers.

An Elegant Lobby

Visitors enter the museum through a cobblestone courtyard that leads to an elegant lobby dominated by an imposing marble staircase lined with ornately sculpted iron balustrades.

The grand staircase, the towering ceiling and the elaborate carvings on the walls combine to create a monumental feeling.

But the grandeur of the museum never overshadows the art, which is simply displayed in intimate galleries.

The collection is arranged chronologically, beginning with Picasso's earliest work around the turn of the century, and progressing through 75 years of relentless creativity.

Among the works on display are a brooding self-portrait, painted in 1901 shortly after the suicide of Picasso's close friend, Casagemas; "Bust of a Sailor" (1907), marking one of the artist's earliest forays into Cubism; "Women at their Toilet" (1938), a massive collage composed of pieces of patterned wallpaper; "The Studio at La Californie" (1956), offering a glimpse of Picasso's cluttered work space in the South of France, and "Seated Old Man," a poignant image of old age painted two years before the artist's death in 1973.

Striking Garden

One of the most striking areas in the museum is the small, multilevel sculpture garden. Shielded by a vaulted glass ceiling, the garden is filled with a soft, natural light even on overcast days.

On display are large, free-standing pieces such as the whimsical "Woman with a Baby Carriage" (1950) and smaller works set on raised platforms.

The Musee Picasso, 5 Rue de Thorigny is only a short walk from the Pompidou Center for the Arts. It is open daily, except Tuesday, from 9:45 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. (Wednesdays till 10 p.m.). Admission is 10 francs (about $1.75 U.S.).

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