Pablo Picasso rampaged like a minotaur through modern art's china shop. He almost single-handedly invented Cubism, and he imposed his protean creativity on painting, drawing, sculpture, collage, photography, engraving, textiles, ceramics, set design and even poetry. He was definitely one of a kind.
And a thief. Picasso lifted themes, compositions, techniques and color schemes from other artists with a brazenness bordering on felony. His victims or inspirations included Cézanne, Courbet, Cranach, Delacroix, El Greco, Goya, Ingres, Matisse, Poussin, Puvis de Chavannes, Rembrandt and Utrillo. He did not merely imbibe their influences, but copied their works obsessively. He created 14 versions of David's Rape of the Sabines, more than 50 of Velásquez' Las Meninas and 167 of Manet's Déjeuner sur l'Herbe.
Sure, artists often rework old masterpieces as part of their early development. But Picasso did so throughout his career. He hoarded postcards, magazine illustrations and other examples of his elders' output and talked candidly of his compulsion to replicate them. "When I saw Déjeuner sur l'Herbe," he wrote in 1932, "I knew this would give me trouble later." It was the trouble that set him apart. Picasso always added his own distortions and subversions, as he moved from realism, through periods of black, blue and pink, toward Cubism and into uncharted territory.
Now you can see how he did it. In "Picasso and the Masters," an unprecedented milestone of curatorial cooperation, three of France's most important museums have joined forces to mount parallel exhibitions tracing Picasso's debts to his predecessors. The Grand Palais, the Louvre and the Musée d'Orsay display a total of more than 300 works by the pupil and his masters side-by-side. The resulting extravaganza, which runs through Feb. 2, is the most expensive art show in French history, costing nearly $6 million, of which 20% goes for insurance on an estimated $2 billion worth of paintings, drawings and sculptures.
The show owes much to a fourth Parisian partner, the Musée Picasso, which provided nearly half the items on display. It will undergo major renovation over the next few years, and rivals around the world have been lining up to borrow some of its 500 works by the Spanish-born artist. That prospect, plus the might of four major French museums acting in concert, allowed the show's curators to bargain for some of the world's most elusive masterpieces. Goya's Maja Desnuda, which last left Spain in 1930, now hangs alongside Picasso's versions at the Grand Palais. Next to them is Manet's maiden, Olympia, which the French have promised to Madrid's Prado museum for a future show.
The fruit of all that flesh-trading is a concise lesson in 20th century art history. The Grand Palais where, on his first visit to Paris, a 19-year-old Picasso exhibited a canvas for the 1900 world's fair has the biggest and most compelling of the three shows. In the first room hangs Yo, Picasso (I, Picasso), a boldly colorful, imperiously confident likeness the artist painted a year after that Paris debut. Surrounded by self-portraits from Gauguin, Rembrandt, El Greco and Goya, it shouts Picasso's determination to be included in their company.
Other pairings at the Grand Palais are more subtle. A roomful of nudes, including Ingres's Odalisque in Grisaille and Titian's Venus Delighting Herself with Love and Music, share little with Picasso's reinvented ladies except their voluptuous curves. But Picasso's 1906 Boy Leading a Horse has the same austerity and elongated figures as El Greco's 1597-99 Saint Martin and the Beggar. And if you thought Cubism was an abrupt rejection of the figurative past, compare Picasso's Cubist Man with a Guitar of 1911-13 with Francisco de Zurbarán's similarly angular Saint Francis of Assisi in His Tomb, painted nearly three centuries earlier.
The similarities are more striking at the Musée d'Orsay, which began life as a train station the year Picasso first visited Paris. Its exhibit focuses on Picasso's attempts to rework Déjeuner sur l'Herbe, rearranging every detail of Manet's picnic in various styles and colors. At the Louvre, Delacroix's 1832 Women of Algiers gets the makeover treatment, sometimes featuring the face of Picasso's second wife, Jacqueline Roque.
Picasso began this life of visual crime as a child, when his museum curator father had him draw copies of classical Greek statuary and Renaissance paintings. Some of those early sketches can be seen at the Grand Palais. In Paris, he haunted the Louvre, sketch pad in hand, ogling the treasures. When the Mona Lisa was stolen from the museum in 1911, Picasso was arrested as a suspect; he was soon released, and the painting was recovered two years later.
Though he painted with authority and originality all his life, Picasso never took his eye off the competition. At age 91, a year before he died, he produced a series of self-portraits unmistakably modeled on those of the aged Rembrandt. And Picasso never forgot those early drawing lessons. "Art has neither a past nor a future," he once said. "The art of the Greeks, the Egyptians and the great painters of other epochs isn't an art of the past. It's more alive today than it ever was." And so Picasso, gone these 35 years, is alive and well and back in Paris, among his heroes.