When the Picasso Museum in Paris invited Sir Paul Smith to design the exhibition marking the 50th anniversary of Pablo Picasso's death, it was clearly looking to shake things up.
The museum, shifting away from the expected guest expert, instead hand-picked a fashion designer to curate the show. Smith – best known for his colourful creations and rigorous tailoring – inevitably threw the rule book out of the window.
How fitting, then, that the show itself is called Picasso Celebration: The collection in a new light.
The National chats to Smith about the process behind the exhibition, which is open to visitors until August.
Speaking from his chaotic, treasure-filled office in London, which overflows with art books, paintings and just, well, stuff, Smith recalls how, in 2019, he was contacted by then-Picasso Museum director, Laurent Le Bon, about co-curating the anniversary show.
“I said: ‘I am not an art historian, I am not a curator and I am not an expert on Picasso’, and he said: 'We just like the way you think about things,'” Smith explains. “I think he liked my eccentricity.”
While Smith is no stranger to being in the spotlight, taking on Picasso was a daunting thought. Amid gentle teasing from his wife that Le Bon had “got the wrong Smith”, he accepted. “And then, of course, I was pretty scared,” he says.
When the pandemic shut the world down in March 2020, Smith and the museum team, including co-curators Joanne Snrech and Cecile Debray, had to do much of their work online. This included making selections from the museum's archives, which contain more than 50,000 works. “Looking at artwork on a small screen, it’s very hard to know if the thing is this or that big,” Smith says, tracing outlines of vast canvasses and tiny artworks in the air with his hands.
He also had to rely on video calls to gain an understanding of the layout of the museum housed within the historic Hotel Sale, which would prove integral to his vision for the show.
“You have to imagine doing something different in every room, where some are very tall with big windows, and some are like an attic with beams, so that was tough in itself,” he explains. “And then trying to think about [the art] in situ – what should the exhibition start with, and try to get this strange rhythm going. The first floor is this amazing vista, a beautiful set of rooms, which go on to big windows that overlook the garden.”
Seizing the chance to do something unexpected, he filled the room at one end of the corridor with studies for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), on walls now painted a punchy pink, while at the opposite end, Smith hung Paul as Harlequin (1924), on a wall hand-painted to echo the diamond pattern of the child's costume.
“The original was too neat,” he explains of the cross hatched lines covering the wall. “When they first painted it, they did it too perfectly.” Still unable to travel because of the pandemic, Smith had to explain his ideas via the phone. “I wanted it to be done in more a relaxed way, and that was all done by holding up my phone to the camera. It was mad,” he says with a laugh.
This ad hoc method, Smith explains, was the only option available for communicating many of his ideas. “For two years it was all about online meetings. For a lot of the decisions, I would get a piece of paper, draw something and hold it up to the camera saying: “Like this, can you see it?” A lot of this was done with Post-it notes and on the back of envelopes.”
Despite the difficulties, Smith was given space to work intuitively. “Looking through hundreds of paintings, there was one period where Picasso put quite a lot of stripes into the artwork, and I thought: ‘Oh, that is very Paul Smith.’”
Using stripes as an inspiration, he coated the walls of one of the museum's rooms in white and green, on to which he hung the famous Portrait de Marie-Therese Walter (1937).
“People were blown away, saying: ‘I can’t imagine you would put a £100 million painting on to a striped wall.’ But somehow it works,’’ he says.
The enormous value of the artworks was an issue in itself, Smith explains. Not only were many of the pieces he wanted in different European institutions, but each piece also had to be stored and transported in its own custom-made crate. “I remember seeing three big boxes [at the museum] one day, and saying: ‘Oh, what’s in there?’ And the lady said: ‘£300 million pounds.’ Mad stuff.”
Leaning into his eclectic taste, Smith painted one room a deep, melancholy blue with a matching carpet, while another is lined with vintage Victorian wallpapers. Elsewhere, walls are plastered with fly posters of long-expired Picasso exhibitions.
Smith's radical take on a traditional exhibition has not only helped to draw record crowds, but also sparked a wider conversation about how art is shown.
“I am someone who is not afraid of colour,” he says. “They could easily have chosen someone who is more minimal, but I don’t think that is what they wanted. I think they wanted something that really surprised people.
“The most difficult thing – apart from being petrified – was being aware that people might not like it. When you are given carte blanche, it’s very much a personal point of view, you know?”
Describing the experience as “humbling”, he explains that even half a century after his death, Picasso has much to teach us. “As a designer I have to be very aware of change and always moving on, the volume of a jacket, the colour, the texture,” Smith says. “Picasso was always interested in new ideas and doing things differently, whereas I have to do it commercially, but I learnt that in the creative business you just have to keep moving.”