Sophie Calle Empties the Musée Picasso for an Eerie Exhibition in Which Both Artists’ Presences Haunt the Institution

Sophie Calle recently decided she would not let Pablo Picasso haunt her. So, for a new exhibition, she had Paris’s Musée Picasso remove 90 percent of its collection, and make way for her latest project, featuring  the better part of her home in what is perhaps her most ambitious exhibition to date, which opens this week.

The Marais-based institution had first reached out to Calle, one of France’s most famous artists, known for conceptual projects that involve following and photographing strangers or friends and then writing extensively about it, about a possible collaboration in 2018. Calle, however, did not see what she might be able to offer the museum at the time. “I am not a Picasso expert. I had nothing to bring to the table, it seemed,” she told ARTnews over the summer as preparations for the exhibition were nearing their final stages.  

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During the pandemic, Calle received another invitation from the Musée Picasso. “An opportunity to get out of my home was too good to pass up then,” she said. “When confronted with Picasso paintings wrapped in brown paper, that’s when it hit me: why not play with Picasso’s absence? Working around his shadows, his ideas, was the best way to keep my distance from him,” she said as handlers were shifting about a few crates on the museum’s first floor.

Calle chronicles her work so eloquently that it would seem as though no further explanation about a series is needed. But, no catalogue nor wall text, however articulate, can fully capture the artist’s humor and charisma when speaking with her in person. When I returned in late September, to take in the rest of her overtaking of the Musée Picasso, her presence was immediately tangible that it almost felt innate to the institution. Her shadow haunts every corner of the museum. Her voice echoes through the galleries. She is there—even when she is not.

A child's drawing showing various figures marching in a line with a crude sun in the right corner.
Sophie Calle, drawing on paper, n.d. ©2023 Sophie Calle/ADAGP, Paris; Collection of the artist

Titled “À toi de faire, ma mignonne” (“Your Deal, My Lovely”), the exhibition takes up the entirety of the Hôtel Salé, from the first to the fourth floor. It opens with Calle’s very first ink drawing; it’s an apt connection: after her father framed it, her mother proudly began saying that there was a Picasso in the family. Opposite it hangs another Calle work, a reconstruction of a 1928 Picasso painting, Head, that was stolen from the Richard Gray Gallery in Chicago in 1994 that was estimated to be worth $500,000 at the time. Calle created her Head based on the memories of people who had actually seen it.

The following rooms feature photographs that Calle took of about 20 Picasso masterpieces wrapped in brown paper, awaiting to be shipped out of the museum. Among them are the 1937 painting Portrait de Marie-Thérèse and the 1950 sculpture La Chèvre. When asked about her selection, Calle said she simply shot what was within reach.

A photo showing a Picasso sculpture that is wrapped and in front a Picasso sculpture of a goat that is wrapped in white.
Installation view of “Sophie Calle: A toi de faire, ma mignonne,” 2023, at au Musée National Picasso Paris. Photo Vinciane Lebrun/Voyez-Vous; Art: ©2023 Sophie Calle/ADAGP, Paris

The only Picasso paintings fully on view in Calle’s show are three self-portraits, which are displayed around a copy of the French translation of the 1941 thriller novel by British author Peter Cheyney, which lent the exhibition its name. “I never read this book before, but behind its title, I imagined as though Picasso was giving me permission to move in and step up,” Calle said. In the next gallery are another five Picasso paintings—Mort de Casagemas, Grande baigneuse au livre, Paul dessinant, Homme à la pipe, and La Nageuse—which Calle has covered with veils of white fabric onto which the artist has printed descriptions of the works, as given by the museum’s security guards. The paintings are physically there, but you can only see them through someone’s else eyes.

In another gallery on the first floor, Calle displays correspondence with the man who was arrested for stealing five masterpieces from the Musée d’Art moderne de Paris in 2010, including Picasso’s Le Pigeon aux petits pois (1911). In the letter, the culprit admits to not being a Picasso fan. For Calle, their interaction is simply a dead end. The letter features in the show, partially redacted for reasons that aren’t totally obvious to the viewer. (The Musée Picasso told ARTnews that the redacted portions didn’t discuss Picasso.)   

View of an artwork that is obscured by a white curtain that has a description of the work printed on it.
Installation view of “Sophie Calle: A toi de faire, ma mignonne,” 2023, at au Musée National Picasso Paris. Photo Vinciane Lebrun/Voyez-Vous; Art: ©2023 Sophie Calle/ADAGP, Paris

But one of Calle’s most impressive contributions to the exhibition is her own version of Guernica. This wall installation was inspired by an anecdote reported in Mary Gabriel’s 2017 book Ninth Street Women in which Arshile Gorky tried to convince a dozen artists to revisit Picasso’s masterpiece. The invited artists were supposed to regroup after a good night’s sleep, but the second meeting never happened. Calle did not go as far as to invite her peers—“I am not sure anyone would have answered my proposition,” she said—but their presence is still felt in the work. Her Guernica has the exact same dimensions as Picasso’s (nearly 11.5 feet by 25.5 feet) but consists of 200 works from her personal collection by artists like Christian Boltanski, Tatiana Trouvé, Miquel Barceló, Damien Hirst, and Cindy Sherman.

As the exhibition continues, the connections to Picasso become even more tenuous and off-kilter, but that is to the show’s benefit. The second floor has been filled with photographs by Calle of individuals who were born blind or have lost their sight. Calle dug up in the museum’s archives a letter from the Association d’aide aux artistes aveugle (AAAA), a French association committed to assisting the blind, asking Picasso if he could help them raise funds by donating one of his drawings. Sixty-five years later, she took it upon herself to grant their request with the help of the Fundación Almine y Bernard Ruiz-Picasso by putting a Picasso ceramic up for auction during the exhibition’s run.

The third level begins as a moving tribute to Sophie Calles’s parents, ultimately leading to a reflection upon the artist’s own legacy, made even more poignant by the fact that she has no children of her own. Keen on the idea of faking her own death, the artist invited auctioneers from Hôtel Drouot to go through her estate. Around 500 items (drawings, paintings, photographs, clothes, and more) have been selected and installed to look as if displayed at the Paris auction house’s salesroom—the gallery walls have even been upholstered in red velvet to continue this farce. (The objects aren’t actually for sale.) “Picasso wished to show what laid behind his paintings,” she said. “I wanted to tell the stories behind some of my personal belongings.”

Installation view of a text-based artwork.
Installation view of “Sophie Calle: A toi de faire, ma mignonne,” 2023, at au Musée National Picasso Paris. Photo Vinciane Lebrun/Voyez-Vous; Art: ©2023 Sophie Calle/ADAGP, Paris

On the museum’s top floor, Calle has given it over to her unfinished projects . These “unfinished businesses” have been framed, hung, and labeled with the reasons they have were never completed—“Censored,” “Too trivial,” “Technical Difficulty”—along with longer captions explaining the project. The last room is home to texts that don’t have accompanying images and, conversely, with images still awaiting a narrative.

Does Calle feel complete now that these projects have been some kind of resolution? “I don’t even know what that means,” Calle replied. “I am done here, with what I imagined for this museum, but I hope I have more to say. I can come up with an idea tomorrow and start working on it. Picasso who saw death in completion and refused to make his [last] will and testament—‘that attracts death,’ he would say. I prefer play with it, but maybe it comes from the same fear.”

The one work Calle made for the exhibition that isn’t on view is an obituary she commissioned from a journalist. She decided to keep it hidden and exhibit only a text explaining her change of heart. Like this exhibition, its presence is there but invisible to naked eye.

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