Picasso's message of peace comes to Colombia's war

Skeptical collectors loan prized paintings to a country more in the news for civil strife than art appreciation

The name Pablo Picasso evokes images of bizarre portraits with eyeballs where ears should be and surreal faces quartered in red and green cubes.

And, there's "Guernica."

The forbidding painting of war shows wounded horses braying, terrified people running through chaos. So, Mr. Picasso is not the first guy you'd think of as the poster child of artists for peace.

But his jarring work was meant to promote just that. When Nazi officials asked him, "Did you do this?" the painter answered, "No, you did."

If one of the goals of art is to foster reflection on the social condition, what better place to showcase a thought-provoking artist like Picasso than war-torn Colombia?

That was Sylvestre Verger's rationale in 1998 when he proposed bringing the first Picasso exhibit ever to Bogot. But, as soon as the French art exhibit producer started asking museums to lend their precious masterpieces, he realized that portraying Colombia as a safe venue would be as tough as decoding some of Picasso's Blue Period paintings.

Still, Mr. Verger persisted with the "Picasso in Bogot" exhibit, because he wanted the painter's work to "have the impact the artist meant it to have, in a country where it's needed."

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

Armed with these apparently quixotic ideas , Verger began asking museums to loan Picassos to Colombia's National Museum in 1998, after he did an exhibition there of pre-Impressionist Eugne Boudin. But Verger says that "only one in 100 said yes." Some said they needed their Picassos for new millennium shows. A few, said that he hadn't given enough notice. Others said they didn't want to risk their paintings "in a country like Colombia."

Pablo Vallecilla, Latin American art expert with Sotheby's New York explains that despite best intentions, big-name art institutions are just not going to relinquish prized masterpieces without some serious convincing. "Unfortunately, museums have to make decisions on such important collections through their boards of directors, and members of these boards may only know what appears in the press about a given country," he says.

"And what you see in the press about Colombia is embarrassingly frightening," adds Mr. Vallecilla, himself a Colombian national.

But, says Verger, "when art becomes dollars," or just worrying about how much to insure a painting for, "it's the death of art." However, "when art is a symbol, with meaning, then people understand it." For Verger, the meaning is hope.

Buoyed by such ideals, Verger persisted. With his track record of having organized shows featuring Joan Mir and Amedeo Modigliani, he and curator Marc Restellini - both French - obtained French President Jacques Chirac's backing. And not long after that, Picasso owners started opening doors.

But even with the relatively wrinkle-free preparations from that point on, guerrilla attacks continued just 25 miles outside the capital. And some lenders became antsy. One collector queried about "war insurance." Colombia's National Museum director Elvira Cuervo de Jaramillo called Paris to cancel the show. Verger said no. Days before the show opened in May, a New York collector contacted Ms. Cuervo wanting to yank five paintings.

But because of the high security precautions and because she and the other loaners genuinely "understood the importance of the exhibition,." says Verger, they were persuaded to stay. Ms. Cuervo arranged for the paintings to be delivered in armored trucks. Thirty heat, motion, and infra-red sensors, bullet-proof glass, and five cameras were installed. And plainclothes policemen are posted throughout the downtown area and in buildings surrounding the museum.

Now through Aug. 11, Colombians can admire such jewels as "Two Dancers," using pointillism and the largest study ever made for the Blue Period "Two Sisters, illustrated books, and an elaborate set design for a Debussy ballet.

And they may be inspired to soul-search and ask each other why the war is still going on.

So far, the public turnout has been strong and has included encouragement from a unexpected art aficionados.

Leaders of the guerrilla army sent Cuervo, the museum director, a message when the exhibit opened. They said that they admired the goals of the show, and invited her to talk about the role of the arts in a new, post-war society at the ongoing government-rebel talks in the Amazon.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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