"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 4 July 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

A Peace of Picasso for Everyone



Bogotá, Colombia — The only place left where tulips can still make an instant millionaire is at Christie's in Manhattan's Rockefeller Center. In May, Picasso's "Still Life with Tulips" raked in $28.6 million after two and a half hours of heated bidding at the auction house. But that's nothing. Last year, at the same address, another of the Spaniard's estimated 80,000 works fetched $45.1 million; in '97, $48.4 million; and in '95, $20 million.

Commenting on these sales, French art producer Sylvestre Verger said, "I don't care much for Picasso's green period." Verger, born into Europe's largest art transportation company and at 43 owner of Paris-based SVO Productions, was puffing on a Marlboro from a pack he'd just bought in Bogotá. He had already excused his English several times, but he wanted to make sure his "green period" bon mot was understood.

"When art becomes dollars, it's the death of art," he said. "But when art is a symbol, with meaning, then people understand it."

Remembering this conversation, it's hard not to recall the heady, early days of the Ed Koch administration, when New York idealists held up Jean Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring as models of anti-corporate art. A few years later, Haring was the proprietor of the Pop Shop and art mavens were rifling through Basquiat's trash for memorabilia. The world has calmed down since then, and really, who wouldn't want to see good coin spent on weird paintings? But Verger had been brought to a dusky café in Colombia's chaotic capital precisely because art, for him, has meaning.



Verger's talk of symbols and meaning in art had begun several blocks earlier, in this Andean capital's National Museum, where 37 Picassos from private collections and galleries will hang until August 11. The symbol in this show, he said, was hope, life, and the throwback word everybody from taxi drivers to ministers use daily here — peace.

Recalling the dirty war that has hobbled this nation of 40 million and drawn millions in military aid from Washington, Verger repeated the legend about Picasso's "Guernica." A Nazi asks the painter, "Did you do this?" The painter replies, "No, you did."



"This was a man opposed to all war, and his work here in Colombia is a statement for peace," said Verger.

Armed with these ideas, Verger began asking museums to loan Picassos for an exhibition in Colombia's National Museum in 1998, after a show he did there of pre-Impressionist Eugene Boudin. One in a hundred said yes. Of the other 99, some said they needed their Picassos for shows on the new millennium. A few needed more advance notice. Others said they didn't want to risk their works "in a country like Colombia," prompting Verger to write in the exhibition catalogue of a possible "cultural embargo."

But by approaching collectors and gallery owners, Verger and partner Marc Restellini were able to bring Colombia some red meat: "Two Dancers," one of two known examples of Picasso using the Impressionist technique pointillism, and the largest study done for "Two Sisters," a blue period painting in Russia's Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. (Of this second piece, Verger offers that it is more interesting to show a study hung once — or never, as in several cases here — than paintings already seen by millions). The show also has 15 oil paintings, three illustrated books, and a 30' x 15' stage decoration done for Debussy's ballet, Prelude a l' Apres-midi d'un faune — and rejected by the Paris Opera.

All of which brings a lot of valuables into South America's most crime-ridden neighborhood. I had the bad taste to ask about the worth of the works a few times, to different people connected with the exhibition. No one was willing to say, "for security reasons." Then I showed Verger the story on Christie's sale the week before our meeting, which also included a few Picassos at $3.7 to $4.7 million. "I've got a few here maybe worth twice that," he said. The loaners of the works "understood the importance" of the exhibition, Verger said, and helped with declared values for insurance purposes - though one asked for "war insurance."

There's no such thing as war insurance. But the exhibition, held in a building that used to house political prisoners, is surrounded by an almost cubist security system — in addition to the usual heat, motion, and infra-red sensors, bullet-proof glass, and multiple cameras. Museum director Elvira Cuervo de Jaramillo explains how Picasso is also being guarded by a contingent of plainclothes policemen posted throughout the downtown area and in buildings surrounding the museum.



"Actually, walking along this street with you, I'm probably more in danger than the paintings back at the museum," Verger said.

Not that "Picasso in Bogota" has been free from trouble. During the last two years, the dollar shot from 1,100 pesos to 2,000, trashing the exhibition's budget. Last October, a guerrilla army at war with the state attacked a town only 40 kilometers from the capital, and Ms. Cuervo called Paris to cancel the show. Verger talked her out of it. Days before the opening, a collector wanted to yank five paintings and put them in New York's International Fine Art Fair. But Verger won out again.

The show's struggle for survival continued until just before Colombia President Andrés Pastrana was due to see the exhibition on the day before its opening, Ms. Cuervo said. But, this being Colombia, the story has a magic-realist plot twist. FARC — the same guerrilla army of 15,000 troops that prompted Cuervo to call Paris last October — sent her a message explaining that they admired the mere fact of the show, and invited her to talk about the role of the arts in a new, post-war society, at on-going government-rebel negotiations in the Amazon.

Franck Giraud, Christie's head of 19th- and 20th-century art worldwide, is familiar with the kind difficulties the show has faced. "I'm not surprised," he says. "Museums go on a country's reputation, even if the people in charge have never been there. This isn't necessarily correct, but it's the way things are." The exhibition, Giraud said, is like the building of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao — "another place of terrorism and violence.

"Feelings and market values are always going to be two different things," Giraud said. "You should always try to bring peace with art."



I'm sure it wasn't intentional, but the guy couldn't have picked a better example. Spain's reaction to the Basque rebels and their separatist violence is always held up by media here as a model, since hundreds of thousands take to the streets to protest bombings and shootings. These protests have been instrumental in building cease-fire accords. Here in Colombia, the public is numbed to violence, prompting one UN observer to call death here "banal" in a way he had never seen before, anywhere. It's unlikely that Picasso, the twentieth century's original artist of banal death, can change that situation. But the fact that this show could happen at all makes even the talk of art curators seem like more than just inflated heroics.

courtesy of Timothy Pratt
picturesTerry Colon

Timothy Pratt