Opinion

From Birthday to Funeral, Rare Footage of Picasso Surfaces in AP Archives

Picasso at his 80th birthday celebration (screenshot via YouTube)
Picasso at his 80th birthday celebration (screenshot via YouTube)

How did Pablo Picasso celebrate his 80th birthday? Thanks to recent efforts by the Associated Press and British Movietone to make their newsreel archives more accessible to the public, we can now witness snippets of the occasion. The two companies announced a project to upload over one million minutes of digitized film footage to YouTube, comprising over 550,000 videos dating as far back as 1895. There are plenty of art-related clips to explore — watch New Yorkers in 1995 react to Christian Boltanski’s “LOST: New York Projects” in the subway or see Christo and Jeanne-Claude unwrap the Reichstag — but one of the greatest gems is the documentation of Picasso’s birthday.

Titled “Still Young at Eighty,” the clip shows the fresh octogenarian in 1961 at his French Riviera home surrounded by a swarm of guests, who were treated to an exclusive exhibition of over two dozen of his paintings. Many of the works were usually tucked away in private collections, and the video teases us with views of a couple of portraits. It then features the Spanish artist enjoying himself at a bullfight, after which folk dancers give a special performance for him. The event stands as a stark contrast to his 90th birthday, which he ignored, according to the New York Times.

Amid the AP archive, one can also find the sale of a number of Picassos at a Sotheby’s auction almost exactly a year before those birthday festivities. The works, from New York financier Jacques Sarlie’s private collection, raked in a total of £430,000, with Picasso’s “Crouching Woman” (1902) bringing in the most: £48,000. “La Gommeuse” and “Still Life with a Candle” fetched £30,000 and £17,000 that night, respectively.

“As everyone knows, Picasso can be difficult,” says the video’s narrator. “But people in the money want his work.”

Fast-forward to 1973, and one can witness the funerary procession following the artist’s death at the age of 91. The video shows hazy shots of Picasso’s chateau at Vauvenargues, which his wife Jacqueline chose as his final resting place, before cutting to a small crowd of mourners waiting outside the gate. Watching the completely silent scenes is especially somber after seeing the fanfare of his 80th birthday.

One more notable, Picasso-related reel offers a glimpse into the day “Guernica” entered the permanent collection of the Museo Nacional del Prado, during a 1981 exhibition that coincided with what would have been the artist’s 100th birthday. The painting depicting horrors of the Spanish Civil War had spent decades away from Spain at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and Picasso wanted it to return to his homeland only after democracy was restored. Issues over its custody divided officials and the artist’s daughter, who argued that the post-Franco society was not yet democratic enough, as the video describes; the painting’s arrival in Madrid thus marked shifting attitudes towards the political climate.

“A genius, immortalized through his work, Picasso belonged to the 20th century,” the narrator says. “His depiction of ‘Guernica,’ now in its rightful place, will remind Spaniards of a tragic chapter in their history, but by it’s presence, it shows faith in Spain’s young democracy.” The painting, as the video notes, was “one of his most controversial,” and it fueled debate once more when it moved just a little over a decade later to its present home, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.

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