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Picasso and Duchamp in first-ever faceoff

A poster for “He was wrong” the exhibition.

STOCKHOLM: Stockholm’s Museum of Modern Art is pitting Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp, two of the 20th century’s modernist greats, against each other in a new exhibition opposing their contrasting approaches to art.

“Picasso/Duchamp: He was wrong,” the show’s title, is based on the laconic remark attributed to Picasso upon learning of Duchamp’s death in 1968.

The exhibition is a “theatrical” posthumous meeting of the two greats, museum curator Daniel Birnbaum said of the pair, each of whom had a famous dislike for the other’s works and who never met.

The Moderna Museet has a fine collection of works by the two influential artists, often described as incompatible rivals, with Picasso the prolific painter and Duchamp the conceptual creator who challenged painting as an art form.

The museum has never before organized a showing of their oeuvres side by side.

“There is really a difference between Duchamp’s detachment and Picasso’s subjectivity,” said exhibition curator Ronald Jones. “When these two things come together, it doesn’t go very well. Picasso is the great painter, and the other is the one who questioned the very nature of an artwork.”

The first room of the exhibition is a large hall adorned with giant portraits of the two artists facing each other: Picasso with a bull mask covering his head in an Edward Quinn photograph, and Duchamp with his face covered in shaving cream and tufts of hair protruding like horns, shot by Man Ray.

Also in the room, Picasso’s 1912 collage “Bottle, Glass and Violin” faces off against Duchamp’s “Bicycle Wheel” from 1913.

It’s the only room where their work is shown together and it is meant to link their universes, which visitors then view separately, choosing to go left to see the works of Duchamp and to the right for Picasso.

Picasso churned out paintings over a career spanning seven decades, while the more humble Duchamp prided himself on a small body of work, delivering just 13 “readymades” over four decades.

The two giants began their careers around the same time, had the same patrons, and sometimes the same supporters and admirers. What divided them was their way of getting their message across.

“Marcel wouldn’t have cared” about his works being exhibited alongside Picasso’s,” mused Jones, “but “Picasso probably wouldn’t have liked it so much. At the end of his life, [Picasso] was quite concerned by the allegiance artists were showing to Duchamp. He despised Duchamp.”

The exhibition features Picasso’s 1941 masterpiece “Woman with Blue Collar” and more than a hundred of his other works – his shocks of color and etchings hung in a number of small and intimate, inviting rooms.

Meanwhile two large, airy rooms are reserved for Duchamp’s 20 conceptual installations, with “Large Glass” and “Fountain” as centerpieces, perhaps more difficult for the visitor to grasp.

Anna Brodow Inzaina, art critic for Svenska Dagbladet, one of Sweden’s leading newspapers, said Picasso wins the contest hands-down but criticized the museum’s need to exaggerate the rivalry that existed between the two.

“Exhibiting Picasso and Duchamp against each other is unnecessarily polarizing and exclusionary,” she wrote, questioning the exhibition’s “he was wrong” point of departure.

“Why does a rivalry between two artistic giants have to be blown up into an ultimatum?” she asked. “Were there really only two ways to go? Does the exhibition want to push us into answering the question?”

“Picasso/Duchamp: He was wrong” runs at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet until March 3, 2013.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 03, 2012, on page 16.

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