For nearly twenty years, Laurent Le Bon, who graduated from the prestigious Institut d’études politiques de Paris and École du Louvre, has put his expertise at the service of major institutions such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Centre Pompidou-Metz, of which he became its very first director.
An eminent Art Historian, Laurent Le Bon also curated the controversial yet brilliant Jeff Koons exhibition at Château de Versailles in 2008 (one of the first contemporary art exhibitions staged in Louis XIV’s property), took on the role of Artistic Director of the 2012 Nuit Blanche in Paris and participated as a member of the jury in the International Festival of art book and film (FILAF) in 2013.
A logical next step was taking the direction of the Musée national Picasso-Paris of which he was appointed director in 2014, following Anne Baldassari’s steps. At the Musée national Picasso-Paris, he has already presented groundbreaking exhibitions that shine a new light on Picasso’s oeuvre including Picasso 1932 Année Erotique (currently on view at Tate Modern in London) or Picasso Giacometti.
Here, Laurent Le Bon talks to Art is Alive about the challenges of staging the current Guernica exhibition without the eponymous masterpiece featured in it, his strategy and future projects for the museum, the fantastic “Picasso-Méditerranée” programme, as well as his personal tastes in modern and contemporary art. With such an impressive career, it’s an honour to run this interview.
As Director of the Picasso Museum, what’s your biggest challenge: curating exhibitions, acquiring relevant works or making sure people come and return to the museum?
Among many exciting challenges, one of the most significant is surely reaching a broader audience and raising awareness on the work of Picasso. The visitors are at the heart of our concerns. We want them to feel welcome in this human scale-museum – preserving the spirit of a home.
What’s the best part of your role?
All aspects of this role are enthralling: dealing with an extraordinary collection and the works of one of the most brilliant artists of the 20th century, our responsibility towards education, but also working with such a dynamic team that allows our projects to come true… I feel lucky every day.
The strategy you’re implementing at the museum?
Our strategy for the museum draws inspiration from the concept of “moviment”, quoting Francis Ponge’s word. The French poet invented this concept to describe the Centre national d’art et de culture Georges Pompidou which was a new kind of museum when it opened in Paris in 1977. That is to say that the museum is both a monument and a movement: in order to offer a constantly renewed vision of Picasso’s work, exhibitions are organized in situ and outside the museum.
Tell us something we don’t know about the collection of the museum?
The museum preserves about 6,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings and etchings, making it the most important collection of Picasso works in the world. But it is often less known that the museum also preserves the archives of Pablo Picasso: more than 200 000 pieces! The archives are an extremely precious resource in understanding his works: they illuminate the context of their creation and the life of Picasso himself. Like an archivist, Picasso kept everything: from letters to invoices, including cinema tickets… He said “The body of work one creates is a form of diary”, a quote that we drew inspiration from for the Picasso 1932 exhibition last year, which invites audiences to follow one year in Picasso’s life.
Please select a few highlights in the museum collection and tell us why they are significant works?
It is very difficult to select one work among the numerous masterpieces of the museum. Diversity is truly the strength of the collection. The question of what a masterpiece is, is very interesting with regards to Picasso’s creation. It will be the subject of our next exhibition (Picasso. Masterpieces!, September 4th 2018-January 13th 2019). Thanks to the generosity of partnering museums and collectors, we are pleased to present some masterpieces for the first time in Paris, such as Harlequin (1923) from the Kunstmuseum Basel.
Any treasures in storage / in the world that the public doesn’t have access to?
It is very important for us that the public has access to the whole collection. The Musée national Picasso-Paris is a national museum and it is the citizens’ collection. Every work can be exhibited as long as the conditions for preservation of the works are respected.
What are your highlights in the Guernica exhibition?
Doing an exhibition on Guernica without Guernica, which cannot travel since its return to Spain in 1992, was a gamble. We decided to organize the exhibition in two parts. The first one shows the history of the masterpiece, its creative process. It was made possible through the exceptional loans of the Museo nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, which lent us the magnificent sketches for the painting. Even if Guernica could not be here, it was important for us that visitors be able to experience the size of the painting. This explains why a reproduction – a little taller than the work – as well as the original chassis, lent by the Museum of Modern Art, are presented at the entrance of the exhibition. The second part of the exhibition tells the story of the work after its creation: where it was exhibited, how iconic it became and how contemporary artists still draw inspiration from it today. The contemporary works inspired by Guernica, which punctuate the exhibition, are definitely highlights of the show.
Is there anything that the public doesn’t know about Picasso yet?
The loan policy of the museum has encouraged the presentation of many Picasso exhibitions in the last few years. All of them were very different and allowed visitors to discover another facet of the artist’s career. I think that this is Picasso’s great strength: he will always surprise us! He and his work are infinite subject matter; everything is yet to be discovered.
In your own words, how do you explain Picasso’s genius?
For me, what is very impressive is the intensity of his production, the durability of his success, as well as his extraordinary capacity to reinvent his art. There are outstanding examples of these qualities from the beginning of his career which will be the focus of the show Picasso. Blue and rose opening next fall at the Musée d’Orsay, co-organized by the Musée Picasso. In June 1901, when Picasso had his first significant exhibition at the Vollard gallery in Paris, he was about to become a very successful artist. He was painting works inspired by post-Impressionism, on fashionable topics, but a few months later, he switched to blue monochromy, a style that was not very attractive to contemporary collectors.
New acquisitions by the museum?
In the context of a limited budget, we simply cannot buy paintings, whose prices are skyrocketing on the art market. Nevertheless, it is very important to continue acquiring works. We focus on drawings, archives, etchings which are still affordable to the museum.
Tell us about Picasso-Méditerranée, such a fantastic programme. How did the idea come about, was it difficult from a logistical point of view? Does the network of Picasso museums already exist?
“Picasso-Méditerranée” is a cultural event initiated by the Musée national Picasso-Paris in 2015. It began in the spring of 2017 and will continue until spring 2019. For “Picasso-Méditerranée”, over sixty cultural institutions came together to create a programme around the work “obstinément méditerranéenne” [stubbornly Mediterranean] of Pablo Picasso. More than 30 exhibitions are presented throughout Europe within this framework – in Greece, Italy, Morocco, Spain, Turkey, and the South of France… This project was a real challenge for the museum: we had to support these institutions from a scientific viewpoint, meet everyone’s expectations while making sure the works were preserved. So far, I think that we can be satisfied with the results: the exhibitions under the “Picasso-Méditerranée” label have been successful and attracted many visitors.
If you had to choose one work – one medium or era, which one would it be and why? I know it’s a difficult question.
It is impossible to choose. It depends on the mood: one day one I will be more sensitive to a painting from the blue period, another to a cubist painting, a sculpture, an etching…
How many works did he make throughout his life?
It is estimated that Picasso created more than 50 000 works during his life, all media included. In the museum we have the chance to preserve the works that were meaningful to him, that he kept all his life and that were donated by his heirs after his death.
Are you going to be involved with the new Picasso Museum in Aix-en-Provence?
The Musée national Picasso-Paris is not directly involved but we would be pleased to collaborate on this project.
Your tastes in modern and contemporary art, who do you look at and like?
I try to approach art history as a whole. I believe in multidisciplinarity and I like to explore what is at the crossroads of various fields, for example the dioramas which explore theatre, art, science (to which an exhibition at Palais de Tokyo, Paris in 2017 was devoted) or the gardens (“Jardins”, Paris, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, 2017).
Future exhibitions / projects we should be aware of?
There will be a beautiful Picasso season in Paris with Picasso. Chefs-d’oeuvre! at the Musée national Picasso-Paris and Picasso. Blue and rose at the Musée d’Orsay next fall.