The Emirates Palace is a pretty spectacular venue for just about anything - be it a dinner, concert, or a casual cappuccino sprinkled with gold leaf. But the red glow and general buzz that emanated from the core of the hotel's lobby on Monday night indicated that something special was afoot. The night before the opening of the first major Picasso exhibition in the Arab world, a private viewing was held, bringing out a mixture of society and arty-types. Many were obviously eager to get a first glimpse of the 183 paintings, sculptures and drawings, others were simply eager to be seen.
It was a VVIP affair, complete with waiters serving delectable canapés and fresh juices, a red-velvet rope separating the VVIPs from the VIPs and frazzled organisers trying to make sure the event went off without a hitch. Attendants at the entrance to the hotel's Gallery One handed out little black cards indicating the number of each guest's tour, while Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Mystery of Picasso and other films were projected on screens. Glittering black abayas mingled with designer dresses, although a pair of sprayed-on white jeans managed to lower the tone somewhat.
A dedicated group hovered around the roped-off entrance to the exhibition, some of the more elegant among them standing patiently, eager to view the famed works. Others jostled to the front trying to make not-so-subtle suggestions that they should be let through first. When the rope was finally lowered, well-heeled men and women pushed to the front and the numbered card system was soon abandoned as people spilt into the first room of the exhibition.
"OK I'll make it easy for you," said a man finally inside the exhibition, giving strong hints to someone on the other end of his phone about where he was. "First name starts with P, last name starts with P. No? Spanish painter — ring any bells?" While some gazed intently at the collection, which features some of Picasso's most well-known works, others used the opportunity to network. A group of suited men exchanged business cards on the exhibition floor, as a woman in full niqab breezed past to get a closer look at Femme aux mains jointes (Woman with Clasped Hands).
One of the youngest art enthusiasts was a little girl of around 10, listening intently to her audio-guide. "I like this one the most Mummy," the little girl said to her mother, pointing to the colourful canvas of Grande nature morte au gueridon (Large Still Life with a Pedestal Table). In a room just off the middle of the exhibition a warmly-lit library has been set up with books on the artist, a television screening Picasso films and computers with information on his life and work. Interactive exercises invite visitors to describe what colours they see in a piece and to draw their interpretation of some of his most famous works.
Peering into the library were a few art consultants, Patricia McGourty Palmer and H. Kenneth Palmer, who had previously seen the collection at its permanent home at the Musee National Picasso in Paris. Both were clearly impressed with what they saw. "We were expecting something from this exhibition, but this is wonderful," Mr Palmer said. "The organisers simply won't let us be disappointed." As the crowds wandered through the white space, which will house the exhibition until September 4, mutterings of "so indicative of his Blue period" and "this is where cubism all started," were overheard.
Of course as with any such events there were smatterings of both fair-weather and genuine art lovers, among them a young Sheikha, pausing throughout the exhibition with her audio-guide and intently studying some of Picasso's most famous works. "It is amazing to see these pieces up close and to see his actual brush strokes," she said. "I'll definitely be back."