Picasso in Palestine: A Prized Painting Is On Rare and Welcome Visit to Ramallah

Letter From Ramallah

Special Viewing: Workers carefully hang ‘Buste de Femme’ in a Palestinian art academy.
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Special Viewing: Workers carefully hang ‘Buste de Femme’ in a Palestinian art academy.

By Graham Lawson

Published July 06, 2011, issue of July 15, 2011.
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Though it’s the temporary administrative capital of the Palestinian Authority, the small, bustling city of Ramallah is not usually a place associated with art or romance. Yet the arrival, in late June, of Picasso’s 1943 painting “Buste de Femme” has lent the place a romantic luster.

The two-year-long struggle to bring the Picasso, the first acknowledged Western masterpiece, to the West Bank has already become the subject of a documentary. Titled “Picasso Visits Palestine” and directed by Palestinian filmmaker Rashid Masharawi, it is scheduled for release in 2012.

Most of us in the West take it for granted that a national museum will have a collection of masterpieces, but in the Occupied Territories there is not a single prominent museum, never mind a masterpiece. The lack of venue, coupled with the West Bank’s ambiguous political status, led to a series of logistical and bureaucratic problems that dogged the attempt to bring in the art.

Khaled Hourani, founder of the Ramallah-based International Academy of Art — Palestine initiated the project. Hourani worked in close coordination with Charles Esche, Remco de Blaaij and Galit Eilat, who are all from the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. With an estimated value of $7.1 million, the painting is the Van Abbemuseum’s most valuable work, and the initial idea was met with some opposition at the museum.

Speaking with de Blaaij, a curator at the Van Abbemuseum and one of the main people involved in bringing the painting to Ramallah, made me realize just how complicated the whole process had been. Besides reassuring trustees about the insurance, security and safeguarding of the painting, de Blaaij, Esche

and Eilat had to explain why such a valuable and treasured painting should travel to such an “unsafe” part of the world.

For the Van Abbemuseum curators, de Blaaij said, their momentum came from thinking of “art as a universal idea” — the idea that art has the ability to cross borders and break down walls. They wanted to question the role of the museum in today’s world and in contemporary society. By attempting to bring the painting into the West Bank, they would confront some of these issues and would also engage in a learning process along the way.

According to de Blaaij, the main difficulties in bringing the painting to Ramallah came from the Dutch Ministry of Commerce. A mixture of insurance and tax issues, coupled with the fear of the painting not returning, resulted in the Oslo accords being revisited to determine the legal status of the painting once it had crossed the “border” into the West Bank from Israel.

Documentation went back and forth among the Van Abbemuseum, the Dutch Ministry of Commerce and, finally, the Israeli customs authorities and the International Academy of Art in Ramallah. As the increasingly Kafkaesque process unfolded, de Blaaij made several visits to Ramallah to ensure that adequate care and safety precautions would be put in place.

“We were still not sure that the painting would travel, 48 hours before the opening,” de Blaaij admitted while noting that he himself could not precisely define what had been the exact stumbling blocks posed by the Dutch Ministry of Commerce. He was not even sure that “legal status” regarding the painting’s travel was ever established, speculating that requirements were waived and that permission for the painting to make its journey was merely granted at the last minute by the Dutch Ministry.

To safeguard the art, somebody from the Van Abbemuseum traveled on the specialized art transport with the painting every step of the journey. There had also been concerns that humidity and high temperatures might prove damaging to the painting, so certain formalities had been put in place, including the stipulation that viewers must be kept to a maximum of two people at a time.

The opening took place June 24 in the courtyard of the International Art Academy. There was no mistaking the festive atmosphere with abundant food and drink, Israeli and Arab art-world glitterati and a universal awareness that this was a significant moment in the history of both the academy and Ramallah. Most of those who had worked hard to bring Picasso to Palestine were present and, at least for a moment, could relax and enjoy the party.

People chatted, nibbled on hors d’oeuvres and drank, but excitement was building to see the painting — the main course of the evening. Guests jumbled into a disorderly queue, no red-carpet affair this; people hustled, shoulder to shoulder, and on reaching the top of the steps at the entrance had to hand their bags back through the crowd — an understandable security precaution.

Entering two at a time, visitors walked past armed guards and finally got a chance to see the painting in situ. Flanked by P.A. guards, “Buste de Femme” was part of a viewing like no other. We were given only two or three minutes to look at the painting. I succeeded, for the most part, in ignoring the guards, and managed to focus on the painting that had taken two years to arrive.

Everything is slightly askew in the work. The fractioned face and body have the appearance of being painted in segments, resulting in the feeling that we are not sure what we are looking at. The mouth is twisted and open. The whole figure — of a woman’s face and upper torso painted cubist style in muddy gray and green hues — suggests disconnection and distress. I decided to move on and let others come to view the work of art. I’d had my time with Ramallah’s Picasso.

The painting is on view through July and ties in with a graduation show for the students of the academy. Hourani hopes that other major art institutions will follow the Van Abbemuseum’s lead in lending major art works to the academy, but for now, the citizens of Ramallah can enjoy the “Buste de Femme.” Instead of the common cry of “the Israelis are here,” Palestinians can now shout, “Picasso is here.”

Contact Graham Lawson at feedback@forward.com

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