Tuesday, May 01, 2012

History of the blockbuster museum show

The Picasso exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario is the hot cultural thing in Toronto now, with vast crowds mobbing the building last weekend after the opening.  (Relax, it'll be there a while.  The Musée Picasso in Paris is closed for renovations, so its collection is on the road.).

The exhibit, virtually without text, is a history of Picasso.  It shows how in his first few decades, even long after the "Demoiselles d'Avignon" and other key works of Cubism, he pretty much painted in any damn style he liked.  It's really only from about the 1930s (he was born 1881) that all his works start to look like Picasso. Not that that is a criticism, or even that they all look the same, but the stylistic continuity is definitely there.

In another part of the AGO, there's a different Picasso history. The AGO is planning regular exhibitions drawing on its own history, surely a good idea.  Right now, they have a little archival display on the last time the Picassos were in town, for a big show called "Picasso and Man" in 1964.  It has photos of Mad Men era Toronto luminaries at the launch party, correspondence with the Soviet Union to borrow some works, memoranda on media planning, right down to the Girl Guide troops who would do babysitting while the grownups looked at the art (!).  Apparently Robert Fulford went through the exhibit the other day and saw a photo of himself in it.

The AGO's retrospective calls the 1964 Picasso and Man exhibit "the first blockbuster."  The designation is probably contestable -- surely the Salon des Refusés was a pretty big deal in late 19th century Paris, and wasn't there a big Group of Seven show or two in 1920s Canada?  But you can see their point.  The way the 1964 Picasso show was organized and marketed -- to become the big cultural buzz of the day, the show the city talked about, the exhibit you were going to go to -- surely points all the way forward, the Henry Moores, the Tut spectacular, the Frank Gehry redesign, and to everything cultural institutions do to bring in the big numbers.
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