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Picasso meets his masters

Picasso and the Masters is an extensive show which features Picasso's works alongside the art that inspired them.

The Galeries nationales du Grand Palais (GNGP), in Paris ushers in Autumn with Picasso and the Masters, an extensive show which features Picasso's works alongside the art that inspired them. For those familiar with the artist many of the pairings come off as obvious and uninspired, but, nonetheless, the exhibition covers an impressive range of pieces, which highlight Picasso's role as an artistic scavenger.

The exhibition, which includes 200 canvasses from all over the world, represents a staggering feat of logistics and overflows the walls of the GNGP. (Peripheral exhibitions at the Louvre and Musée d'Orsay explore Picasso's dialogue with Delacroix's Femmes d'Alger and Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe.) The first room sets the scene with an array of self-portraits by artists including Rembrandt, Poussin, Gauguin, El Greco, Delacroix and Cézanne juxtaposed with early examples by Picasso, the painter poised with palette in hand or bohemian scarf around his neck.

Other works contain strong influences of Spanish art: Veláquez and Goya, and motifs of knights and toreadors, though in the case of The Matador, the imagery is actually filtered through the French painter Manet. Other French painters such as Renoir and Henri Rousseau, had an influence on his work, albeit one less obvious. Picasso possessed their works in his personal collection, and while we often attribute Picasso's joyful beach scenes to Cézanne, Renoir deserves equal credit.

The show reinforces the importance of El Greco, with the long-bearded forms of Picasso's early black paintings and offers a fascinating chance to see Picasso's pink-period Boy Leading a Horse alongside El Greco's poetic Saint Martin and the Beggar. Elsewhere Picasso's female portraits are hung alongside those of Goya, Ingres, Manet andRousseau, while the still-lifes reveal a quieter, more contemplative side with Chardin, Goya and the spiritual power of Zurbarán's extraordinary Agnus Dei.

Just a few pieces provide totally unexpected or unlikely insights, such as a pointillist version, done in 1917, of Louis Le Nain's The Return from the Christening, a 17th-century moral genre painting, which Picasso has transformed into an ethereal family portrait, obscured in clouds of pastel confetti. Some of the most intriguing borrowings are what the curator Marie-Laure Bernadac calls "Picasso cannibal", as if he ate up his sources and spat them out all jumbled up and rich in gastric juices. Poussin's cold rationality might seem far removed from Picasso's exuberance, yet the swirling, complex composition of The Rape of the Sabine Women is recreated here as an entangled mass of horses and bodies. In a separate gallery, a kind of art- historical beauty pageant unfolds with Titian's Venus, Goya's Maja Nu and Manet's Olympia as its contestants. Yet Olympia, in the hands of Picasso, becomes an earthly mass of flesh.

It is amusing, but in the end this "greatest hits" array is all a bit too obvious. As with any big crowd-pulling blockbuster, it offers an easy fix without the need to travel all over the world. We can see Picasso's delirious mix of genres and styles, his constant pillaging from historical sources - and for those who see it as a victory for continuity in the ever-popular "tradition versus rupture debate", it is proof that Picasso could happily accommodate both tradition and rupture. Yet these side-by-side illustrations don't really tell us an awful lot more about Picasso. We can see that he chewed up and spat out Poussin, but wouldn't it be interesting to know why?

Until February 2 2009, Galleries nationales du Grand Palais (@email:www.grandpalais.fr).

Updated: October 26, 2008 04:00 AM

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