Simon de Pury on the Year of Picasso and the Enduring ‘Shock and Revelation’ of His Genius

The veteran auctioneer looks back on the 50th anniversary of Picasso's death and explains why "All You Need is Pablo."

Pablo Picasso, Femme a la montre (1932). at Sotheby's auction house showcasing the highlights of Emily Fisher Landau collection in London, United Kingdom on October 06, 2023. Photo by Wiktor Szymanowicz/Future Publishing via Getty Images.

Every month in The Hammer, art-industry veteran Simon de Pury lifts the curtain on his life as the ultimate art-world insider, his brushes with celebrity, and his invaluable insight into the inner workings of the art market.

My iPhone is so much an extension of my arm that if I want to reflect on the year that is coming to an end, the first thing I do is scroll back on the hundreds of images that I have taken during 2023.

Beauty is always in the eye of the beholder and it never ceases to fascinate me how each of us will see or notice completely different things even if we visit the same places, cities, countries or exhibitions. When an artwork strikes a chord in me I will usually try to photograph it. I consider myself to be phenomenally lucky to do professionally what I enjoy most i.e. to look at a lot of art. I always say that if you love candy there is no better place to work in than in the candy shop! It is an all devouring passion and there are no limits to my curiosity. In a year during which tragically the darkest sides of human nature have very much been in evidence, art is even more essential. At its best it stands for the finest that humans can achieve and as such allows you not to entirely give up on hope.

Looking at the hundreds of paintings and works of art I have photographed this year as in previous years Pablo Picasso stands out. 2023 is the 50th anniversary of the passing of the great master. For the artist’s family it has been a sad year with the passing of Françoise Gilot who has been the partner of Picasso from 1943 to 1953 and the untimely death of Claude Picasso the son she had from her union with the artist. Picasso’s work has been celebrated through countless exhibitions in museums and galleries around the world. No matter how many exhibitions one has seen devoted to his work, no matter how well one thinks one knows his work, one each time experiences anew the shock and revelation of his infinite genius. After visiting for instance the exquisite exhibition of “Picasso and the Antique” at the Princely Palace in Monaco last October, or the great “Picasso the Foreigner” at Gagosian in New York last November one leaves fully recharged and reenergized.

Painting exhibition of Pablo Picasso at Palais des Papes in Avignon, France, 1973. Photo by Michel Ginfray/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

Painting exhibition of Pablo Picasso at Palais des Papes in Avignon, France, 1973. Photo by Michel Ginfray/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

I remember vividly visiting during the summer of 1973 the large Picasso exhibition at the Palais des Papes in Avignon. It remains to this day one of the top ten most exciting exhibitions I have seen in my now more than half a century of going to museums. The walls were plastered with works that Picasso had done during the last three years of his life and had himself selected for the exhibition. He died on April 8, that year just a month before the opening of the show. Some critics at the time were scathing, commenting that it was the work of an old man approaching senility. The importance and influence of the artist’s work has never ceased to grow ever since. So many young contemporary artists around the world still today find inspiration in his work and in particular with the work done at the end of his life. Almine Rech both in London and New York as well as Per Skarstedt in New York highlighted some of these artists in interesting gallery shows.

Every time Picasso approached a new medium he made it his own. He is my favorite painter, sculptor, draughtsman, ceramicist, engraver, lithographer, and book illustrator. If he was alive today he would transcend all new media and categories accessible to artists today. He would push NFTs to a new level. The fact that Picasso was so prolific and went through so many different periods during his career makes him a permanent presence on the art market. I don’t know the exact figures but am certain that if you add up the prices of all the works of his that have appeared on the market it makes him one of the three top selling artists for every one of the 50 years since his passing. There is not great scarcity yet there is so much variety in his oeuvre that the market will never be flooded. While taste generally constantly evolves and different periods such as the blue, pink or cubist periods of the artist have been at times more coveted than other periods before shifting, I am convinced that the interest in his work will remain super strong during the next 50 years. If someone wants still today to build an outstanding world class collection, while being sure of making a safe financial investment, she or he can with the necessary financial means of course still make an incredible one artist collection.

Pablo Picasso, besides his unique talent and genius, also was the prototype for some of today’s most successful artists who are great self publicists. I remember the photographer David Douglas Duncan telling me that the first time he met Picasso, who subsequently was to become a close friend of his, the artist immediately agreed to pose for him taking a bath in his bathtub. His sharp dark eyes and his penetrating gaze made him along with Miles Davis probably one the most photogenic men of the 20th century. Picasso became a household name during his life time. As a small boy in kindergarten I remember other kids saying “am doing a Picasso” when they were drawing.

<i>Seated Harlequin</i> by Pablo Picasso on loan from the Kunstmuseum Basel to the Prado Museum in 2015. Photo by Quim Llenas/Getty Images.

Seated Harlequin by Pablo Picasso on loan from the Kunstmuseum Basel to the Prado Museum in 2015. Photo by Quim Llenas/Getty Images.

My fascination with this towering artist has maybe also something to do with the fact that I grew up in Basel. The Fondation Beyeler did not exist yet but Ernst Beyeler as one of the world’s leading art dealers was regularly showing top works of his in his gallery in the old town.

In 1967 the son of the collector Rudolf Staechelin needed to raise money after the crash of an airplane belonging to his charter airline. He decided to sell the two masterworks Two Brothers of 1905 and Seated Harlequin of 1923 that his father had acquired and had been on loan for many years at the Kunstmuseum Basel. He had been made substantial offers by an American collector but was prepared to sell them to the museum for 8.4 million Swiss Francs so that they could stay there. The local government was going to foot the most substantial part of the bill. A referendum took place since some citizens protested that their tax money should not be used to that end. A vote did need to take place. The whole city mobilized itself during the weeks leading up to it. The local governor Lukas Burckhardt, dressed up as a harlequin, was selling sausages at a Picasso feast to help raise money. When the vote took place a majority of the population of Basel voted in favor of the purchase. Pablo Picasso was so happy when he heard the outcome of the vote that he invited the then Director of the Kunstmuseum, Franz Meyer (who was the son in law of Marc Chagall) to his studio in Mougins and donated four more paintings to the Kunstmuseum for the “youth of Basel.” 1967 was the summer of Love, the year in which the Beatles released All You Need is Love. During the weeks leading up to the historic vote most of my co teenagers were wearing badges with the inscription “All You Need is Pablo.”

Going into the New Year I can only echo these feelings of my youth in the sixties. Our mottos should remain: “All You Need is Love,” “All You Need is Art,” and “All You Need is Pablo!”

Simon de Pury is the founder of de PURY, former chairman and chief auctioneer of Phillips de Pury & Company, former Europe chairman and chief auctioneer of Sotheby’s, and former curator of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. He is an auctioneer, curator, private dealer, art advisor, photographer, and DJ. Instagram: @simondepury

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