Sex, Birth, Death and God; an Intriguing New Museum in Paris Helps Explain Picasso's Life-Changing Fascination with Primal Art

By Dickey, Christopher | Newsweek International, July 3, 2006 | Go to article overview

Sex, Birth, Death and God; an Intriguing New Museum in Paris Helps Explain Picasso's Life-Changing Fascination with Primal Art


Dickey, Christopher, Newsweek International


Byline: Christopher Dickey

In 1907, Pablo Picasso caught what he called the "virus" of African art in the musty halls of what was then known as the Ethnographic Museum in Paris. Jumbled together in dimly lit cases were masks and sculptures that the French had collected as specimens of sorts, monstrous curiosities of religion and sorcery from what was still described as the "Dark Continent." Picasso felt the magic of their vision. He began to include it in his own painting, transforming the way he worked, and helping to change the way we all see art.

Last week many of the pieces that first fascinated Picasso were revealed at the opening of the vast new Musee du Quai Branly on the banks of the Seine, along with thousands of other works from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. They make up the most spectacular permanent exhibition of non-Western art ever assembled: some 3,500 pieces are on display, with another 300,000 stored in the basement. Designed by architect Jean Nouvel, the €235 million building is meant to be a place of emotion as well as scholarship, mystery as well as learning.

French President Jacques Chirac, who has a passion for so-called primitive art, launched the museum project soon after he was first elected in 1995. In 2000, to whet the public's appetite, an outpost was set up with 120 dazzling works in a far corner of the Louvre. Some 3 million people have visited those rooms since then, and those works are now a permanent fixture in the same wing as the Mona Lisa. But what's on show at the Louvre is just a taste of the extravagant experience created across the river at the Quai Branly.

The outside of Nouvel's complex of buildings, a couple of blocks from the Eiffel Tower, is as full of color and surprises as a peyote eater's dreams, and sometimes scarcely more coherent. One wall, fronting the Seine, is a mass of 15,000 living plants constructed into a vertical garden by the imaginative botanist Patrick Blanc. A high glass palisade lines the road, meant to reflect the trees and river, while behind it more trees have been planted; the main building itself rises above the ground on huge pylons that are meant to suggest trees. …

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