Emilia Philippot: “Observing Picasso’s work allows us to follow the path of a man of his century, and to witness the birth of modern art”

Emilia Philippot

“Picasso – Birth of a Genius” represented the most significant exhibition of work by Pablo Picasso ever to take place in China and is presented at UCCA Center for Contemporary Art between 15 June and 1 September, 2019. 103 works in total, taken from the collection of the Musée national Picasso-Paris, with paintings, sculptures, and works on paper have traveled all the way to Beijing and offer a comprehensive overview of the first three decades of Picasso’s career in an exhibition conceived and organized specifically for this presentation in UCCA and in China.

The exhibition was curated by Emilia Philippot, a Picasso’s work specialist and the Head of Collections at the Musée national Picasso-Paris. Doors, which co-organized the exhibition with UCCA and Musée national Picasso-Paris, had the opportunity to ask Emilia a few questions about the exhibition and about Picasso.


Exhibition view "Picasso-Birth of a genius" at UCCA Beijing. Courtesy of UCCA Center for Contemporary Art


Exhibition view of "Picasso-Birth of a genius" at UCCA Beijing. Courtesy of UCCA Center for Contemporary Art


Exhibition view "Picasso-Birth of a genius" at UCCA Beijing. Courtesy of UCCA Center for Contemporary Art

DoorZine: How did you work on the concept behind the exhibition “Picasso – Birth of a Genius” ? How did you make your selection among the thousands of works conserved in the Musée National Picasso-Paris ?

Emilia Philippot: “Picasso – Birth of a Genius” focuses on the artist’s period in training from 1895 to the classical golden era of the 1920s. The exhibition shows Picasso’s development throughout the Blue and Rose periods, but also displays his primitivist period and the various phases of cubism by way of major works. The art has been chosen with the utmost of care, taking several factors into consideration: their state of preservation, how they can help explain the artist’s evolution by being representative enough of the various artistic languages elaborated on at the time, and their multidisciplinary nature. The idea is to show that Picasso, since the very beginning, was a complete artist, experimenting in all media. The exhibition ends with a number of late works, made between 1927 and 1972, which show the permanence of certain topics and founding principles that were set very early in his creative process.

DoorZine: This exhibition concentrates on the first 30 years of Picasso’s artistic life. In what way is this approach interesting? What does it convey, and what parts of his artistic life does it serve to highlight?

I believe it is always interesting to study the early works of an artist, to better understand how founding principles fall into place. In Picasso’s case specifically, what strikes me in particular is his great precocity, the incredible skills he shows even in his youngest period, but also how fast he liberates himself from conventions and how fast he builds his own artistic identity. His artistic identity is rich and pluralistic, strenghtened simultaneously by what he thought during his academic training, but also and more importantly by his curiosity and appetite for his predecessors’ works. Indeed, it is noticeable that he progresses in a continuous motion that is carried out in successive experiments. These experiments explore parallel paths which all come together even though the cohesion is not alway immediately discernable. The freedom of approach and the genius in invention are exactly where the unity of his work resides.

“What fascinates me in Picasso’s work is his talent, and the way he deeply questions the process of art representation”

Emilia Philippot

DoorZine: Let’s talk a little about your background. When and why did you start developing an interest for Picasso?

I studied History of Art at the Ecole du Louvre, specializing in 19th and 20th Century art. I took a course on circus representation in Picasso’s work. Even before taking my curatorial examination, I was very familiar of this artist. Since childhood, I had seen a lot of his art in reproductions, books, and on postcards. I specifically remember one postcard of Jacqueline’s portrait, known as Madame Z, whose profile seemed sculpted in a combination of colored facets. This painting gave me a feeling of monumentality, and, at the same time, because of the particular attention to details, such as the eyes, a feeling of a great elegance that commanded respect. It had the solidity and permanence of something antique, and at the same time, was eminently modern and attractive.

While studying the Rose period, I was moved, like a lot of people I believe, by Picasso’s deep empathy for circus people, and more precisely misfits, wanderers, and artists who lived on the margins of society. I was seized by the blend of grace and sadness that emanated from his works. And when I realized all these paintings had been made by the same artist, I felt dizzy in awe.

What fascinates me in Picasso’s work is his talent, and the way he deeply questions the process of art representation – beginning with cubism. Most importantly, I am astounded by his incredible capacity for renewal, his ability to be modern, to be in sync with his world, understand it and embody it in an artistic and humanistic way. From 1900s Barcelona to the Cannes promenade de la Croisette in 1950, from the Roaring Twenties in Paris to the sexual liberation of the 1960s, and throughout the dark years of the 1930s, Picasso keeps on reinventing his artistic language in response to his environment, whether it was intimate, historical, social, or cultural. Observing his work allows us to follow the path of a man of his century, and to witness the birth of modern art.


Pablo Picasso, "Violin and Music Sheets. Paris", autumn 1912. Musée national Picasso-Paris © Succession Picasso 2019


Pablo Picasso, "Studies", 1920. Oil on canvas, 100x81cm. Musée national Picasso-Paris. Courtesy of Succession Picasso 2019


Pablo Picasso, "Self-Portrait", Paris, end of 1901, ©Succession Picasso 2019


Picasso, “Self-Portrait”, Paris, autumn 1906, ©Succession Picasso 2019

DoorZine: “Picasso. Birth of a Genius” has six parts, drawing successively on Picasso’s early years, the Blue and Rose periods, a phase of revolutionnary experiments of forms and space, followed by a cubist period, before presenting the turning point that lead the artist to a classical rebirth, as well as his incursion in the worlds of theater and dance. Could you develop on this choice of exhibition trail? Should the audience see, in Picasso’s artistic development, an linear evolution or a circular one?  

The exhibition path was from the outset thought of in chronological chapters, permitting an understanding of the genesis of shapes in Picasso’s works, as well as grasping the road travelled during his first thirty years of creation – between his academic training, his first artistic identity, the cubist revolution and the classical revival after World War I. This traditional approach responds to a desire for clarity from an audience that would have, for the most part, never seen a Picasso painting before.

It also serves to offer a contextual setting on a larger scale. Outside each box welcoming a new chapter, there is a portrait of the artist from the period in which the works were created. This allows the audience to be aware of the extreme youth of the artist, and, at the same time, to visualize the physical metamorphosis of the young man, whose postures shows how he built and gained confidence in his winning spirit.

Other forms of contextualization allow us to anchor this history of art in context, from Spain to France and England, thanks to images of studios or important places that were sources of inspiration represented inside scenographical spaces.

At the same time, this project was also thought, since the beginning, to establish bridges between the periods and to outgrow a relevant but often normative and exclusive categorization. What was at stake in this project was also to show how the works interacted with each other, and how, in his early years, Picasso set out a number of principles, questions, and practices that he never stopped revisiting and reinventing throughout his career. This is why I worked with the scenographer to create openings and perspectives in order to make the audience aware of the stability of certain thematics, such as self-portrait, the relationship between painting and sculpture (sculptural paintings and/or pictoral sculptures) or methodological aspects (multiplication of points of view, distance from the subject). This is also why the central place that marks the exhibition also appears, bit by bit, throughout the whole exhibition and give a glimpse of Picasso’s ulterior work in emblematic masterpieces – the postcards of Picasso’s repertoire.

DoorZine: Which do you think are the key works of the exhibition ?  

The selection of works brought to Beijing is exceptional and counts a significant number of major works, such as the 1901 Self-Portrait and the Celestine, icons of the Blue Period ; The Two Brothers and a Bust of a Woman from the Gosol period ; and also a remarkable set of pieces from 1907-1908, all preparatory studies for the Young Ladies of Avignon and Three Figures Under a Tree ; as well as some essential cubist works such as Man with Mandolin and Man with Fireplace and the monumental papier collé Violin and Sheet Music, which dialogues with the sculpture in sheet metal entitled Violin. In the last part of the exhibition, The Village Dance and The Lovers probably represent the most significant works from the early 1920s while Reading from 1932 and The Kiss from 1969, along with The Young Painter from 1972 are amongst the most famous paintings from the Musée National Picasso-Paris.

Pablo Picasso, “The Kiss”, Mougins, October 26, 1969. Musée national Picasso-Paris. © Succession Picasso 2019

DoorZine: How do you feel about bringing this exhibition to Beijing ? Does showing these works in China imply or represent something in particular for you ?

I am incredibly proud and pleased to present this exhibition in China, where Picasso’s work has been rarely exhibited, in Beijing not for more than 35 years. I therefore have the feeling that I am fulfilling one of the most important missions of my job as a curator, which is studying, preserving, and enriching the collection I am in charge of, but also promoting it on a larger scale. Picasso’s international prestige is an essential component of our museum’s policy since its reopening. To be able to present Picasso in this big country is an honor and an opportunity for the museum and for our Chinese audience.

To your knowledge, what links have existed between Picasso and China ? 

The Musée National Picasso-Paris has been in possession of the artist’s private archives since a donation from the Succession in 1992, and counts around 200,000 works in its collection. To this date there is no inventory record, but research conducted for the exhibition has not identified any specific links between Picasso and China. The artist was not a great traveller, barely moving much in his life – he had never been to the United States, for example! He did take a significant trip to Italy in 1917 and frequently travelled to his homeland, Spain, up until 1936, but he has essentially lived in France, settling in the south of France after World War II. Incidentally, it’s in La Californie, his villa in Cannes, that he received the great Chinese painter Zhang Daqian in July 1956. On this occasion, they were able to continue a discussion initiated a few weeks earlier in Paris when the artist was holding an exhibition in the Modern Art Museum of Paris. We may notice in his later works a set of ink wash paintings that could have been inspired by this encounter.

Zhang Daqian and Picasso (July 1956)

This is the first time the Musée National Picasso-Paris presents such a large proportion of its collection in China. Does this mean anything for the future of the Musée?

It is indeed the first time that the museum presents this much of its collection in China. Since its reopening in 2014, the museum has initiated an important policy of promotion of its collection, in Paris, in France, and abroad. In Paris, we collaborated with the biggest public establishments such as the Quai Branly museum where we held a Primitivist Picasso exhibition, or at Musée d’Orsay for Picasso – Blue and Rose. We continue to run these types of partnerships right now with a Picasso and War exhibition at the Army Museum. Our Mediterranean Picasso exhibition programme toured more than 60 institutions in about 20 countries. Internationally, a significant number of works were presented in Latin America in 2016: in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. The museum intends to continue to focus on international expansion, and is eager to open a new chapter by developing a relationship with Asia, and specifically with China.

“Picasso — Birth of a Genius” exhibition at UCCA (Beijing) June 15th — September 1st, 2019
More info

Keep up with Musée national Picasso-Paris on their website or by following their Instagram

Read our interview with Philip Tinari, director of UCCA

“Academic Study of a Plaster after the Antique La Coruna”, 1893-94. Musée national Picasso-Paris. © Succession Picasso 2019

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Director of the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing since 2011, he hosted the most important Picasso exhibition in China in 2019, produced and toured by Doors.
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