Fall 2012 | ArteZine

A Picasso in Search of a Context


What happens when a painting crosses cultural and political borders? Does it change its meaning en route? Do certain places have different potential to excite responses from a work of art?

Taking a 1943 Picasso painting from Eindhoven to Ramallah involved two years of planning and negotiation including experiences of sudden, profound disappointment and great individual generosity. Once installed at the International Academy of Art Palestine (IAAP) in Ramallah, the work gathered a public who encountered, many for the first time, a real canvas by this modern master. A few days later, a postcard arrived at the Academy from Amjad Ghannam, a Palestinian held prisoner in an Israeli jail. Its arrival signaled that the event had touched some people and was resonating out into the world beyond art. Television in Palestine and internationally as well as reams of press articles followed, and it even sparked a series of pointed cartoons in the local newspapers. The arrival of the painting allowed journalists to look more closely at the situation in Palestine, to describe things that would normally be left alone. Earlier, the German paper Die Zeit had switched its intended coverage of the Palestinian economy to an in-depth article tracing the project. This was both a surprise and a bonus for us; what began as an idea from Palestinian artist Khaled Hourani became something that exceeded any of our expectations.

So often in our neo-liberal world, art exhibitions are required to measure their effectiveness in terms of their contribution to financial profit or social cohesion. In Ramallah, these issues were less present and yet the reactions to a Picasso painting were clearer and more animated than could ever be expected of an audience in Eindhoven. The exhibition of Picasso’s 1943 painting in Ramallah was an auspicious occasion in itself. It confirmed the development of an already long-standing relationship between the Van Abbemuseum and the IAAP as well as between different colleagues institutions. More than that, it represents a symbolic connection between European modernity and contemporary Palestinian culture: a connection that can serve, if understood well, as a way to imagine cultural globalism as mutuality rather than conformism to a single worldview. The story of modernity as told from Europe is aligned with colonialism and war, as much as it is represented by the liberating images of the artistic avant-garde. Palestine, like other non-European nations, was a bystander in the high modern world represented by Picasso and his comrades. Ramallah, Jerusalem, Hebron and many other cities in the region were, at that time, places to which things were done and rather than agents of their own destiny. After the long Ottoman rule, the mandates and occupations of British, French, North Americans and European Israelis all took turns in determining the region’s future, as they still mostly do today. But change is afoot, the patterns of modernity are no longer fresh and their shapes are becoming less distinct. Of course, there are many stumbling blocks in the way placed there by external and internal forces that do not want change, but I sense the direction of travel is clear and away from the truths that the modern world of the twentieth century held to be self-evident.

Staff at the Van Abbemuseum in Holland prepare the Buste de Femme for its journey to Ramallah.
(photo: Perry van Duijnhoven)

Fulfilling the request of the IAAP both momentarily normalizes the situation in Ramallah and depicts the nature of its state of exception. As V.I Lenin pointed out in the 2nd International Congress in 1920, the imperialist war has drawn the dependent peoples into world history. Now, a century later, world history is being shaped by new combinations of peoples as the old forms of imperialism fight their wars around new consciousnesses that are emerging. Sometimes these new forms are in direct conflict with the old forces, sometimes they bypass them or turn their back completely. How that future will unfold is perhaps more unclear than it was even at the end of the Ottoman period, but in its modest way, Picasso in Palestine is part of a wider trajectory. Along its line, Lenin’s prediction is becoming more roundly fulfilled, as people in Palestine and elsewhere in the changing region become the subjects of world history that they have long been denied except as remarkable individuals. They are learning to write their own scripts for a multi-polar planet where new spaces for action emerge in between the cracks of power. Certainly, this is optimistic. The forces of fascism have, in Picasso’s old lands, never been stronger since 1943 but nevertheless we must be open to new possibilities to dawn even as we see lights going out elsewhere. Making any ambitious claim about the link between world history and an art project is naturally not without its dangers.Picasso in Palestine is, after all, only strictly concerned with the shipment of a small amount of wood, canvas and paint from one country to another. Yet the elaborate processes that have had to be engaged in order to achieve it – processes that took nearly two years to complete – demonstrate that something other than the simple presentation of a painting are at stake.

This whole project began as a dual investigation. On one level, it was a seemingly simple loan request from one organization (an art academy) to another (a museum). The direct nature of the request required the museum to deal with it in the way any other application for borrowing a work from our collection would be assessed. Asking questions about the condition of the space it was to be shown, the security of transport, the regulations around insurance and all the other issues that emerged as we did so unlocked the strange and ambiguous legal and cultural status of this eastern part of the traditional Palestinian territory that remains under external occupation. While we were sympathetic to the project, we were also careful to follow Dutch codes of conduct. This project was a meeting of systems, not a bending of rules, a meeting that had to learn how to synchronize each side with the other on a logistic, administrative and ultimately personal level. Many people helped secure the necessary permissions, often through their own commitment towards the project. Figures such as Galit Eilat, who had left Israel but was still in contact with the situation there and also individuals like Chamber of Commerce officer Mr. De Wit at Schiphol Airport or Mr IJmker, an insurance company director who was willing to visit Ramallah personally to asses the risk were all of crucial importance in realizing our mission.


LEFT: The Buste de Femme is ushered through the cargo area at Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands on its way to Tel Aviv and then Ramallah. RIGHT: A van carries the Buste de Femme through a checkpoint in Kalandia en route to Ramallah.

At the same time as recognizing the significance of all this administrative dancing through hurdles, the project was equally an artistic work by the Palestinian artist and teacher, Khaled Hourani that merits the mantle of conceptual art and institutional critique. It was his insight into the complex meanings that the movement of a Picasso to Palestine would create, and the support of his colleagues and the students at the academy that gave us all belief in the cultural value of the project. It is after all not unproblematic for a Western museum to lend this work to Palestine. There are overtones of cultural imperialism and the risk of seemingly asserting Western values or conformism that cannot be ignored. It was therefore essential that the initiative remained with the International Art Academy Palestine and that their desires guided the unfolding drama and the consistent attempts to navigate each difficulty along the way. To be clear about the peculiar circumstances of this loan, it is worth recalling that lending a work to the Israel Museum some 25 kilometers away from the academy would have elicited very different responses from insurers, transporters, the press and the politicians. The simple act of contemplating going to Ramallah immediately created political and juridical questions on all sides, alongside international media attention that was very welcome but disproportionate to the PR capacities of a provincial institution such as the Van Abbemuseum.

In this way, the project clearly reveals far more about the given situation than might be expected from its simple premise. In these circumstances exhibiting a painting by arguably the most famous artist of the 20th century in a country that is arguably the most heavily surveilled place on earth today, firmly situates art and its aesthetic possibilities in relation to history-in-the-making. Yet this project does not only comment on or even create a real effect on the situation in Palestine. It also has an influence on the future of the Picasso painting and on the museum collection of which it is part. The Van Abbemuseum has invested time and energy in building relationships across the Middle East for the last 3-4 years, though much of this has been invisible to the visiting public. Behind the scenes however, we have slowly tried to encourage a genuine exchange of opinions between very different cultural conditions, establish mutual understandings and build trust where none existed before. Through the course of the meetings, we began to speak of the idea of a dispersed museum, one that was present in the relations forged across cultural regions rather than in the art objects held in the collection and displayed in one central location. That this dispersed museum should manifest itself elsewhere other than Eindhoven was a logical consequence of that thinking and that it should appear not as the museum itself but rather in cooperation with (one could say even in the guise of) the International Art Academy Palestine was also an obvious if less publicly explicable development.


LEFT: Journalists vie to view the Buste de Femme. RIGHT: (l to r) Fatima Abdul Karim and Khaled Hourani from the Academy in Ramallah pose together with Bettine Verkuijlen and Louis Baltussen from the Van Abbemuseum. They are standing in front of the box that was used to transport the Buste de Femme from the the Van Abbemuseum in the Holland to Ramallah.

In parallel to this process of encountering new influences in the Middle East meetings, the workers at the museum have been investigating a separate but connected question for ourselves: “What are the potential capacities of the European art museum of the 21st century?” While Western modernist universalism and European cultural hegemony are discredited concepts, the image of what may come to replace them is still barely discernable. One result is that in Europe we are forced to think about what we want to preserve or pass on to an awkwardly emerging cosmopolitanism from this modern culture for which we were largely responsible. We can assume that the cultural values in formation will no longer be only ‘Western’ in origin, but we do not know which precise elements of former Western ethical and cultural inventions will be valid for the future. To make an attempt to discover what might be appropriate, we felt at the museum that we needed to redeploy the collection in different public ways. We suspected that through the insights and actions of artists from very different cultural backgrounds we might understand what would otherwise remain unimaginable to us. Particularly, we wanted to think about what we had in our archives and how this might be used in ways to which we were simply blind. The crucial question we asked ourselves was what to do with our European modernist legacy in general in the face of the changing global balance and the gradually emergence of a non-European centered authority.

Picasso in Palestine emerged out of the confluence of these two long-term trajectories of dispersal and an inquiry into the contemporary values of modernism. For the Van Abbemuseum, the most pertinent questions are framed by the project. How can a European art museum become meaningful to a wider context than its home ground? How can the works of Picasso, which have long since lost their radical edge and become familiar old classics, be reimagined or recontextualised in ways that would restore something of the old feelings of physical alienation and the sense of a strange yet close emotional distancing that they produced in their own time? We received a different Picasso back from Ramallah: a Picasso with a new narrative; a (re)politicized Picasso; a Middle Eastern Picasso. By following this journey and continuing to explore its ramifications, we feel we are making a constructive response to the question of the museum of the 21st century. It feels like we are constructing new histories at the same time as preserving old ones. In the process, we are satisfying a request from a group of colleagues that we would never have dreamed of doing ourselves. The element of hospitality here, of, in Derrida’s words, “saying yes to who or what turns up” is crucial for understanding what we can learn from Picasso in Palestine, just as it will inform what we do in Eindhoven from this moment on.


All images and text are copyrighted material owned by either the artist and/or writer and are reprinted with explicit permission for ArteEast Online and cannot be reprinted without consent of artist or author.


About the Author: