Meeting with Laurent Le Bon, president and director of the Musée National Picasso in Paris, and curator of exhibitions
The gathering of the 3 Harlequins of 1923, the Dance loaned by the Tate, the 3 Bathers of 1937, alone justify the visit of “Chefs d’Oeuvre!” to the Picasso Paris National Museum. Its president Laurent Le Bon, who, like a Sisyphus, has been watching over the memory of this genius since 2014, after his success at the head of the Centre Pompidou Metz Laurent Le Bon is part of this new generation of curators who are constantly reinventing the profession. This “passeur”, known for his eclecticism and his insatiable curiosity, will soon inaugurate the exhibition “Picasso.Bleu et rose” at the Musée d’Orsay*, this time as curator, the other part of his activities, a passion he describes as time-consuming.
Meeting with one of the most brilliant men of his time, whose intellectual agility and humour are challenged by a transversal and iconoclastic vision of art history, from which we emerge both surprised and conquered!
Marie de la Fresnaye: You describe the hanging as “a musical phrase to create”. Does “Chefs d’Oeuvre!” (a reference to your inaugural exhibition for the Pompidou Metz, without the question mark) meet this challenge according to you?
Laurent Le Bon: A musical phrase can be diverse and as you made us the friendship to begin this interview by talking about the elegant Hôtel Salé, we must first come back to the architectural environment. You don’t mount an exhibition in a 17th century Hotel Particulier like on a white cube. Since the reopening in 2014 we have understood and integrated that the structure (the decor having disappeared long before) creates a rhythm that influences our hooks, our proposals. When I speak of musical phrase, I suggest that any exhibition be a mental construction (cosa mentale). Basically an exhibition has become like a film, an opera, with that moment of chemical precipitate where a work that can take several years is finally revealed. I would like to pay tribute to Emilie Bouvard and Coline Zellal, the two curators of this exhibition, before continuing.
You also gave a second key. There is a tendency in our lives as curators/artists, (a vast debate by the way, and which could be the subject of another interview – does the curator claim to be an artist -), to want to be inscribed in a story.
I like to tell chapters and when I proposed the notion of masterpieces, which encompasses almost a year, as a openning exhibition, I saw as a nod to the 2010 exhibition in Metz with this question mark.
With Picasso there is no question mark, everything is a masterpiece.
But as our friends at the Musée d’Orsay were questioning us about the Blue and Pink Period*, here at the museum, we wanted to put forward rhythms, founding moments, decisive works, after the spring exhibition which questioned another masterpiece, Guernica.
Then we chose as scenographer Nathalie Crinière who knew how to upset our idea of the exhibition, retaking the idea of window already present at Pompidou-Metz, this idea of framing invented by Jasmin Oezcebi, establishing a moment of latency before being able to appreciate a work.
It fits in this sense of a musical phrase, with fortissimo or pianissimo moments.
She has created a cabinet de curiosité around the small daily objects preserved by Dora Maar, in dialogue with Brassaï’s photographs, which offers a rather magical break after the flight of stairs where we await La Danse from the Tate.
In terms of hanging, don’t forget that it is Picasso who gives us the key, as in the Avignon’s hall where we were able to create this density in profusion. On the other hand in the following room we find this dialogue between ancient and contemporary art, with an unexpected effect in front of Rembrandt’s last self-portrait himself in dialogue with 2 last masterpieces, almost the last 2 drawings by Picasso at the age of 90.
We alternate very different atmospheres in about fifteen rooms to come out, I hope, with the sensation that Picasso still surprises us. We are even making new discoveries such as this figure of Josep Palau i Fabre whom the French public knows less than Pierre Daix or John Richardson, this fascinating historian and true companion, whose birthday is celebrated by consecrating a dedicated room to him.
MdlF: Intense Picassian event this summer through the Picasso-Méditerranée international event of which you are the instigator, what is the outcome at this stage?
LLB: Back in 2014: when I arrived in this house, we put at the heart of our policy, the idea that the collection was national, I added the word national in the name of the museum, which was in the original decree but had disappeared.
This, not with a nationalist aim but to remind that this collection is yours, it is everyone’s collection. We sometimes tend, in our professions, to transform our role as guardians into a role of owners, whereas we are only passeurs.
Even if offering beautiful exhibitions at the Hotel Salé is at the heart of our will, it is important to go as close as possible to all citizens and especially those who have the least access or habit, to show them masterpieces and thus make our modest contribution to this vast debate on cultural democratization. In 2015, a year after my arrival here, I brought many partners together in Nice to change strategy and agree not on a diktat from Paris but from their own institutions and adventures, and build a common agenda. We chose Picasso and the Mediterranean, an eminently obvious subject for him. On the other hand, what is less so is the diversity of themes that emerged from the 46 exhibitions, subjects that reached the public when reading the first attendance figures at the halfway point.
What is different is the readability of the program and its distribution over 2 years from 2017 to 2019. We have already surpassed the million visitors for all the events with around twenty openings, very diverse subjects and dedicated publications.
From Picasso and Godard to Arles, Picasso and Matisse to Nice, Picasso and Picabia to Aix which was a revelation and goes beyond the type of duet sometimes artificial, as had been the case at the Hotel Salé with Picasso/Giacometti very appreciated by the public. As for a more traditional retrospective logic, that of the Fabre Museum in Montpellier thanks to a very spectacular scenography, Michel Hilaire was able to revisit the masterpieces.
In Marseille, the theme of the year is love, they took it in reverse through the vein of the imaginary journey with the development of the unknown collection of postcards of the museum. We can say that there was a huge enthusiasm, a great public success, which is not necessarily certain, even with Picasso. We will complete the circle with a beautiful exhibition on Picasso in Antibes in this city, which strangely had never been explored before, yet Picasso made other stays there than the period known with the post-war Grimaldi castle. Jean-Louis Andral is preparing a real fireworks display! The project will end with a “Mediterranean Atlas” which will be like a synthesis of publications, seminars (the next one in Malaga) and symposia, which we hope to be published in spring 2019.
MdlF: What is your vision of the curatorial profession? And in what way is it impacted by the digital evolution and the growing place of social networks which demands a permanent race to the audience while demanding a contrario, a comeback to the essential?
LLB: Yes. It’s a bit like a big gap even if the 2 legs remain upright in front of this big mess!
What I would call the 2 pillars:
– Keeping the heart of the profession: we remain basically conservatives, a terrible word that sometimes frightens me. We are given in charge of a heritage, we must ensure that it is studied, inventoried, like a Sisyphus, always remain vigilant.
In a museum like our, we are less in a logic of acquisition, the credits do not allow it and that would not make sense. We prefer to enrich the collection in areas such as engraving, ceramics, illustrated books, to be exhaustive and move forward
– The other pillar, is this upheaval, this consequence of social networks and more globally this digital world which makes that today we have a duty to be attentive to the young and also to an older public sensitive to this magic of the digital. We could sweep that aside, but we are all closely studying the success of the “Atelier des Lumières” and other institutions that have basically raised essential pedagogical questions. Today we can no longer content ourselves with hanging works in the most beautiful musical phrases, and limit ourselves to cartels or otherwise, the museum will die.
So do libraries. These are models that must be reinvented. That is also why our jobs are exciting. Even if we’re caught up in the technocracy that also goes as far as toilet paper disposal! This is also the job of museum curator ! it forces us to get out of our daily lives to be able to look a little further. We are at the beginning of a revolution of which we do not yet control all the consequences. But I have confidence, we see it in the first reactions on this exhibition of Chefs d’oeuvres! because the public remains fascinated to see the original. We can do all possible digitizations, augmented realities, there will always remain, we hope, this emotion.
MdlF: On the curatorial side, the place of contemporary art that you claim since Jeff Koons in Versailles generates many dialogues between artists, some more relevant than others, what are the ingredients to work?
LLB: I will bring it closer to another passion and another aspect of our profession, which is teaching. I always thought even if it could become very time-consuming and without wanting to take the place of my team, that these 2 components were fundamental.
This, of course, requires a good management of the schedules but I try every year to make an exhibition. And everyone knows that I am not a Picassian from the early days, and it would probably take a lifetime to try to understand the magic of this artist, my conception of art history is open. For me, Picasso is better appreciated if we appreciate the Chauvet cave and vice versa.
In 2019, an exhibition between prehistory and modernity is being prepared at the Centre Pompidou, where we will learn a lot. Indeed the report of a creator of today and a more classical master seems to me to be at the heart of our professions. I am always very afraid of curators who are only interested in young creation and a certain reserve for my colleagues, certainly very brilliant but who concentrate on a very strict period.
Today all the art historians who made us dream have been able to embrace large chronological periods, as Aby Warburg. Roberto Longhi or Harald Szeemann and more recently Hans Ulrich Obrist.
Dialogue in a heritage monument like Versailles is always to be reinvented without falling into a possible cliché, but here again the public is not mistaken.
The moments of chemical precipitates to resume this image, are rare, this kind of harmony between a place, a curatorial purpose and an artist.
If we go back to Jeff Koons, I started from the observation that he was very present in all media (social networks did not exist), his image and his work reproduced in abundance but with a lack of contact with the original work.
As in Versailles it was difficult to hang paintings we concentrated on the sculptural work around 15 pieces only with this bias, rhythm that we find here, one work per room. Those who wanted to miss out could easily do so. And to pick up on that funny joke, Jeff Koons’ opponents were probably watching more in the air to rediscover this extraordinary ceiling program that culminates with the gallery of mirrors, which we tend to dodge when we’re looking for the exit!
We finally return in all modesty, to what the King and the monarchy had decided in the 17th century, to trust the creators of his time.
Today we must, even in a house like the Hotel Salé, make this place there.
We evoke it through 2 relatively opposed artists, one more conceptual, Claude Rutault, the other more figurative Guillaume Bruère, which generates a fertile tension.
My next project is very close, and while in general I avoid doing curatorial work on Picasso, I wanted, for personal reasons, to respond to the invitation of the Musée d’Orsay which proposes an exhibition on the Blue and Pink Period, a real event for France. Curiously, no exhibition had looked at this period although a large part of these works were made in Paris. It will be moving to see these works created by an artist then in need, who lacked everything. The period of the Bateau Lavoir being often forgotten, they almost became chromos, clichés, and rarely seen in France (as for Jeff Koons) because they were very quickly collected by our Russian, American, English and German friends.
I think I can say today, when we are in the final stages of a hanging, that this is a gathering that we will never see again in our lifetime!
I therefore encourage all those who will be able to come to Paris this autumn, which will offer a real fireworks display with Miro at the Grand Palais, Cubism at the Centre Pompidou, Egon Schiele at the Louis Vuitton Foundation… A profusion as every year but rarely of such a level.
MdlF: If you had a dream… incomplete
LLB: Our professions are a permanent dream in a very difficult world, with the chance to be in contact with artworks, which has no price. And above all we have the chance to welcome people to appreciate these works. What more can be asked but for the dream to continue.
I like to quote Marcel Duchamp’s phrase about some of these works “being of definitive incompleteness”. My dream is to invent tomorrow’s exhibition and try to find some happiness there.
MdlF: Subsidiary questions: What is your motto?
LLB: Strangely I never associated myself with a motto or a quotation. There is a reason that comes close to the Picassian work and this question I am often asked about my favourite work that I cannot answer.
I love the whole history of art, I love all Picasso’s work with of course preferences, I can’t choose. I’m greedy enough too with a voracious side.
I have sometimes been reproached for proposing exhibitions with too much profusion as for Dada and in the end 10 years later, I realize that I like diving into this ocean.
That art in an extremely complex world still manages to ask us essential questions and that we can defend them on the picture stands is quite magical!
Born in 1969 in Neuilly-sur-Seine (Hauts-de-Seine), Laurent Le Bon joined the museum world after graduating from the Institut d’études politiques de Paris and the Ecole du Louvre. After a notable stint at the Délégation aux arts plastiques, he became curator at the Centre Pompidou in 2000. There he signed the exhibition “Dada” in 2001. In 2010 he became director of the Centre Pompidou Metz, while continuing to curate several exhibitions, including some controversial Jeff Koons and Murakami in Versailles or more consensual with Jardins au Grand Palais and the Nuit Blanche in 2012. It was in 2014 that he took over from Anne Baldassari at the Picasso Museum, the year the museum reopened in a context of delicate controversy.
Picasso. Chefs d’œuvre !
until 13 January 2019
Musée National Picasso-Paris
Picasso. Bleu et Rose
18 September 2018 – 6 January 2019
Exhibition co-produced by the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée National Picasso-Paris.
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