Yo, Pablo: Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Who are the artists that people who know nothing about art know? Van Gogh? Michelangelo? Picasso? For museums trying to bring traffic through their doors, drawing in the non-art lover is more important than ever. Shows such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris offer enough for the devotee of modern art to sink their teeth into while being accessible enough for newbies to cut their teeth on it, too. In addition to presenting a great artist to the public, Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris provides a textbook example of how museums can maximize their own collections to maximize their profits and chances for survival.

You can never replicate the experience of standing in front of the artwork itself, but the web presence of this show comes really, really close. The opening page of the exhibition features several clips of the PMA’s inimitable Michael Taylor, the show’s curator and the museum’s modern art curator, talking about important pieces throughout the galleries. Every time I’ve attended a press preview, I’ve always wished that everyone could hear these passionate professionals share their insights. These rich human resources often seem wasted in dumbed down audio tours. The PMA’s video clips allow Taylor to exercise the full length of his erudition to wonderful effect.


The PMA’s web page follows the curator with a comprehensive gallery guide that allows anyone to wander virtually among the art. Encountering Jean Metzinger’s 1911 Tea Time (Woman with a Teaspoon), known as the “Mona Lisa of Cubism,” on a computer screen or, better, in person complements Picasso’s art while demonstrating that the “and Avant-Garde in Paris” section of the show’s title isn’t just an empty promise. Paris in the age of Picasso hummed like a beehive of activity, with Picasso himself buzzing from movement to movement and cross-pollinating artists of all kinds.

Any museum with internet resources should follow the PMA’s lead and load up their web pages with content. Instead of worrying that such offerings will satisfy the curious and hurt attendance, museums should be secure enough in the power of their offerings that a little taste will only make people hungry for more. Of course, the PMA’s formidable collection of art allows them to stage in-house productions such as Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris with little outside help, whereas smaller museums may only dream of putting together such big-name shows. The real message of this exhibition, aside from the greatness of Picasso and his central role in a pivotal moment in the history of modern art, is that today’s museums need to adapt or die.

[Image: Tea Time (Woman with a Teaspoon), 1911. Jean Metzinger (French, 1883-1956). Oil on cardboard, 29 7/8 x 27 5/8 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.]

[Many thanks to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for providing me with the image above and press materials for Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris, which runs through April 25.]

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