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MeTube: Infrared Insights at the Met’s So-So Picasso Show UPDATED

[NOTE: This post was written in a rush, earlier today. I’ve since fleshed it out a bit, with a few more images, links and one correction.]

I’ve seen a number of profound landmark Picasso shows in my lifetime. Picasso in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a recession exhibition opening next Tuesday, which exposes most of the Met’s works by that artist, is not one of them.

Put together with undue haste (first conceived after Thomas Campbell had been named the Met’s director-designate in September 2008), this show—large in size if not in ambition—is limited by limitations of the museum’s holdings, which can’t hold a candle to what can be seen in the permanent-collection galleries of a certain modern art museum situated a mile downtown.

As the Met acknowledges in a wall label, the Met came late to the Picasso-collecting game: Its first acquisition was the famous portrait of Gertrude Stein, bequeathed by the sitter in 1946:

“Gertrude Stein,” 1905-6

In his catalogue essay, Met curator Gary Tinterow mentions “three extraordinary, transformative gifts” that finally brought the Picasso collection a measure of comprehensiveness—the 1995 Florene Schoenborn bequest, the Klaus and Dolly Perls gift of the late 1990s, and the 1998 Jacques and Natasha Gelman bequest. All of these collecting coups were the work of the museum’s former head of 20th-century art, the late William Lieberman, who came to the Met from the Museum of Modern Art and knew where the collectors were and how to woo them. Also important was the 1982 bequest of Scofield Thayer. [I had previously, in error, attributed Thayer’s benefaction to Lieberman’s influence. Thayer’s will had been drafted earlier.]

When Campbell greeted me at the press preview, I mentioned the near-dearth of great Analytic Cubist paintings. “You’re right,” he agreed. “We’re working on it. See us in 15 years’ time.” (I should live so long!) Asked if it’s still possible to acquire great Cubist works, and he assured me it was. (Let me guess: Leonard Lauder‘s collection?)

In the meantime, here’s the Met’s prime example from this pivotal moment in modern art, part of the Gelman Collection:

“Still Live with a Bottle of Rum,” 1911

The strength of “Picasso” was its enormous display of linoleum cuts and the raunchy “374 Suite” of etchings—both of which provided a somewhat anticlimatic coda to the show. But for all that wall space, the representation of drop-dead paintings was disappointingly thin.

Happily, as Carol Vogel reported today in the NY Times, one of the stars of the show was restored in time for the press preview after its too-close encounter with a clumsy visitor:


Below is the repaired lower right corner. There is no visible sign that it recently suffered a six-inch vertical tear:


The only Big Idea in the show came out of the conservation lab: The technical analysis of some paintings revealed evidence of completely unrelated paintings beneath the surface, as well as Picasso’s reworking of his compositions. A particularly interesting example is this painting:

“La Coiffure,” 1906

As Tinterow said at Monday’s press preview, “La Coiffure” has “at least three full, finished paintings underneath it, and the beginnings of three or four other pictures. The fascinating findings of the forensic work, performed by the Met’s conservators with infrared relectography and X-rays, are shown in the catalogue and on video screens in a side room of the show.

Here’s Gary:

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