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P. Kevin Morley/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP

Power art

Capital of the Confederacy takes on Picasso

Issue: "Tick, tick, tick ...," May 7, 2011

What's a conservative city like Richmond, Va., doing with an avant-garde exhibition on Pablo Picasso? For one thing, making a lot of money with it.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is the only East Coast venue for a rare show on the most influential painter of the 20th century. "Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée Picasso, Paris" is making a seven-city international tour while the collection's home in France is under renovation. One of the most comprehensive collections from the artist's 80-year career, it includes 176 works from his personal collection-paintings, sculptures, and other work Picasso considered too valuable to let go.

I'm no Picasso fan but I'm glad I went (at the urging of several WORLD readers). I came away with a stronger appreciation of Picasso's role as a modern painter who ushered in the postmodern obsession with the carnal and the material. I learned Picasso's cubist work was not abstract but "starting from reality," as he said, an effort to capture three-dimensional form on a two-dimensional surface. "Masterpieces"-­composed as it is of the artist's own photography, sketch work, notes, sculpture, and paintings that range from the realistic Celestina (1904) to the geometric Jacqueline with Crossed Hands (1954)-captures a kind of hyper-realism: art less as aesthetic than, as Picasso said, "a form of magic designed as mediator between the strange, hostile world and us."

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But making a sell of $20 museum tickets while multiplexes charging half that much sit empty? "Masterpieces" has played to sell-out crowds in Seattle and Richmond and is sure to do so as it travels on in late May to San Francisco before heading overseas. In Richmond the museum sold 75,000 tickets the first month of the exhibition-plus a record 31,000 memberships-and as in Seattle accommodating crowds forced it to extend weekend hours. Out-of-town visitors taking advantage of hotel packages that include entrance to the show are dropping additional revenue on the city-a lesson in the power of fine art for other cities pulling through economic doldrums.


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