Picasso at Gagosian: What's behind the green curtain?

Pablo Picasso, Minotaur Caressing the Hand of a Sleeping Girl With His Face from the Vollard Suite (Suite Vollard) 1933, published 1939 © 2017 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


We have come to know the minotaur as a creature defined by both extreme intimacy and brutality. The offspring of Pasiphaë and the bull she fell in love with, the minotaur has come to embody drama and machismo. For Picasso to have chosen the minotaur to be the figure to embody his own character, to be an auto-biographical figure in some sense, might seem a rather self-indulgent and bold choice. But then, we are talking about Picasso.

In the current exhibition 'Picasso: Minotaurs and Matadors' at the Gagosian London, curated by Sir John Richardson, we are invited to see the public and private lives of this great beast, and the great artist in turn. We are invited to do this behind a green curtain.

Inside the first gallery, we find artworks suspended in a somewhat surrealist fashion, floating without creasing the natural folds of green. Hidden by the curtain from the outside world, we too are suspended from reality and lifted into Picasso’s fantasies. Just as we see the minotaur in many guises – innocent, blind, god-like, often bullish and exceptionally hairy – the curtain too seems to take on many forms. Like Picasso’s art, the curtain’s undulating forms appear ripe for a surrealist interpretation by its viewers, as its manifold reviews reveal:

'Instead of white walls, we find walls covered by a green pleated curtain, as if we’ve entered a space where drama awaits us, or even a hushed sacred space. And in a way we have.’

– Fisun Güner

‘...hung with thick curtains to resemble some exclusive private viewing room...’

– The Telegraph

'Minotaurs and Matadors is displayed in surroundings that are as theatrical as they are elegant. Architects Caruso St John have given Gagosian’s Grosvenor Hill gallery the feel of the modernist 1950s, with floor-to-ceiling pleated green curtains dividing the space and plywood trestles for sculptures and ceramics but Picasso more than survives this puzzling exhibition design.’

– The Guardian

'The walls in the first gallery are draped with green curtains, the lights are low, it’s half way between a funeral home and your granny’s house.’

– Time Out

Regardless of architectural firm Caruso St. John’s intentions, the curtain has become an object of playful inventiveness in its own right. What is actually behind the green curtain? Of course there’s no right answer; clearly, it lies in the eye of the beholder, and there’s really little but the white walls of the Gagosian. But there’s a lot to play with. As a design decision I feel it’s very fitting: equally playful and powerful. It shapes the ambience of the exhibition, and is in constant, quiet conversation with the artworks.

An initial reading of the curtain evokes a public space of performance – curtains are defining features of theatres and cinemas. In an exhibition that celebrates Picasso’s obsession with the dramatic performance of bull fighting, themes of mythical power and strong beasts, the curtain can be considered to add to the drama and spectacle of the art’s subject matter. Indeed, the green curtain forms a screening room where we marvel at the great artist, and ferocity he dazzlingly depicts.

But rather than adding to the melodrama, I’d suggest that the curtain invites a more intimate viewing of Picasso’s work. The first room which houses most of the minotaur works, has more the closeness of the labyrinth than the performance of the open bull ring, suggested by the second gallery room with white walls. The curtains create an environment that feels more like meeting Picasso’s masterpieces in a dark garden on a silent night: a secret rendezvous with the lover you really shouldn’t see, but he’s so beastly he’s all you want.

To break this down to its physical parts: the green curtain acts to quieten the gallery space, and its division of space gives us a ‘private’ moment with the artworks. The Farrow & Ball coloured trestle tables and descriptions, and thick hanging curtain folds, are reminiscent of a 1950s home. Its texture and colour adds warmth. It softens the lines and starkness of harsh white walls and corners. It helps takes some of the bullishness out of the exhibition.

It would be reasonable for violence and confident displays of masculinity to be the message you are left with from the exhibition. We encounter numerous depictions of horny, virile minotaurs, often behaving aggressively, one taking advantage of a sleeping lover. The darkness of his work is palpable. But elsewhere Picasso takes the confident mythical creature and adds human imperfections. Behind the curtain we see foolish lovers, passionate embraces, and vulnerability. We meet reclining minotaurs that are at once beast, man and artist. The privacy and quietness, softness and warmth of the exhibition design helps to highlight all the gentleness and tenderness in Picasso’s work when violence is so immediately apparent. The curtain is a reminder that it is the tenderness and intimate passion, not boldness and violence alone, which make Picasso so brilliant.

The minotaur in its bullishness and sexual nature is a confident biographical choice of Picasso’s. So too is choosing a deeply un-bullish, un-sexy green curtain to frame - and, I would argue, balance - these masterpieces.

– Chloe Schneider

Picasso: Minotaurs and Matadors is at Gagosian Gallery, London, until 25 August, 2017.