he full breadth of Picasso’s genius is coming to China, with the most significant exhibition of his work ever shown in the country opening this summer at Beijing’s UCCA Center for Contemporary Art. The artist’s work, which often recorded the vagaries of 20th-century Europe, may appear at first slightly detached from China’s concurrent upheavals, but Philip Tinari, the director of the museum, identifies a connection with the artist’s reception there. “Picasso’s image shifted in China throughout the 20th century, which, as you might suspect, has a lot to say about the political changes that took place here throughout and after his lifetime,” he says.
Central Academy of Fine Arts professor Wu Xueshan explores Picasso’s evolving impact upon China in an essay for the exhibition, says Tinari. “Picasso is not widely collected or exhibited in China, but as in so many other places throughout the world, he is a household name. We look forward to giving the broad public a mental image and personal experience to complement this famous name, and one that is true to the extent and expanse of his achievement.”
Picasso – Birth of a Genius, supported by Sotheby’s, will include 103 original works, mostly realised between 1893 and 1921, on loan from the state-run Musée national Picasso-Paris (MnPP) to the private institution. Among the highlights on show will be self portraits from 1901 and 1906, as well as 1919’s The Lovers. “This is by far the most comprehensive and significant exhibition of works by Picasso yet mounted in China. It is extremely rare for a show of this scale and calibre on any modern master to find its way to an institution in Beijing,” Tinari says. Curated by the MnPP head of collections Emilia Philippot, the show focuses on the first three decades of Picasso’s career. “You might see the whole exhibition as an explanation of his well-known quote: ‘I wanted to be a painter, and I ended up as Picasso.’”
The artist’s evolution is presented over five sections, starting with The First Picasso, about his early works such as Man in a Cap, 1895, and Study of a Torso, After a Plaster Cast, 1893–94. Picasso Blue and Rose explores his development from emulating Post-Impressionist paintings to forming his own unique style with works such as The Jester, 1905, and Two Brothers, 1906. Picasso the Exorcist and Picasso the Cubist trace works from Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, through The Mandolinist, 1911, and Man with Fireplace, 1916. His return to classicism, such as in Studies, 1920 and his 1919 materials for the production of Le Tricorne by Ballets Russes, provides the focus of Picasso the Chameleon, which also overviews the artist’s later career.
UCCA has also planned complementary programming including a festival of screenings, performances and lectures. A symposium about Picasso in China will explore the artist’s influence on Chinese artists and the popular perception of him in the country.
Discussions between the two museums began in 2015, but were paused for UCCA’s restructuring in 2016 and 2017, resuming last year as the centre completed a renovation. Picasso – Birth of a Genius also presents a new direction for UCCA, an institution usually focused on contemporary art, and one that came with its own challenges. Tinari says, “We had to upgrade our climate, humidity and security systems as part of a larger renovation that took place throughout 2018. This show marks the completion of that process, which leaves UCCA in a position to host future exhibitions of historical material with large anticipated visitor numbers. We also needed to modify our usual approach to publicity and marketing, thinking about how to reach new sectors of the public, around and beyond Beijing.”
The exhibition also presents a milestone for Sino-French artistic exchanges, with both countries’ leaders hoping it will set the stage for further collaborations. “We have been very grateful for the support we have received from both governments, and for the centrality that the French have given it in this year’s programme of cultural exchange,” Tinari says.
The two governments have designated 2021 as the year of Sino-French cultural tourism, and sharing culture has been a focus of meetings last June between French prime minister Édouard Philippe and Chinese premier Li Keqiang. This March, presidents Xi Jinping and Emmanuel Macron met at the Élysée Palace, where bilateral cultural exchange was again emphasised, particularly Picasso – Birth of a Genius and a cooperation between Versailles and the Forbidden City. Macron remarked, “They reflect a common state of mind, that of rediscovering the essence of our bond, and the bedrock on which our mutual understanding is built.”
Lisa Movius is an arts writer based in Shanghai Picasso – Birth of a Genius, UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, 15 June–1 September.
Sotheby's is a proud sponsor of this exhibition.