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PICASSO. Paris honors the master of contradictions

What a master Picasso was of the fruitful -- or provoking -- self-contradiction. Take his attitude toward museums, for instance. ``Just a lot of lies,'' he called them. To Roland Penrose, he said: ``If you want to kill a picture, . . . hang it beautifully on a nail and soon you will see nothing of it but the frame.'' He was no great supporter of the curatorial spirit. But upon being named director (in absentia) of Madrid's Prado Museum before World War II, he certainly didn't protest the symbolic gesture. And in 1970, when he gave an extraordinary collection of early work to Barcelona, Spain, he deliberately endorsed a museum devoted to him alone. Nor, apparently, was he against proposals made the same year for a Picasso museum in his adopted France.

But a French museum for the Spanish artist was to be a posthumous affair. It opened here Sept. 28, more than 12 years after his passing. Its home, the delectably restored, ingeniously adapted H^otel Sal'e, proves to be a superb place to ensconce the Picasso legend as a permanent, integral part of France's culture. In saving an excellent 17th-century town house while enshrining the artist's own collection of his work, France has achieved a double stroke of conservation. The work has been done with immacu late taste.

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Possible conflicts between the improvisatory, sometimes aggressive character of the art and the solid, yet often delightfully decorative virtues of the historical building, have been carefully avoided. The grand staircase of this house (which was originally the city home of a collector of taxes on salt) leads up to a salon de Jupiter, embellished with golden sandstone carvings of putti, oak branches, and reclining deities, all freshly cleaned.

The Picassos placed in this significant part of the house are deliberately low-key; his large-canvas ``Three Women at the Spring'' of 1921, predominantly in red chalk, is particularly in harmony with the classical decorations. Quiet in color, yet appropriate in scale, it is something of a conciliatory gesture, perhaps, by the curators toward those who feel that Picasso and this beautiful building are incompatible.

It is possible, of course, that Picasso himself would have enjoyed the potentially startling mix of styles: his love of self-contradiction again. His art certainly suggests a succession of different artists, however much his personality is always resurfacing. To follow, as you can, the entire course of his long career through the many and varied galleries shaped in conformity with the house, is to witness once more the restless, disquieting, fluent energy with which he kept his art alive and kicking.

Picasso seems almost always to have been aware of an opposite possibility. In the speeded-up time scale of museum chronology, no sooner is he the cubist than his quite contrary classicism appears. A distinct sentimentality is countered by a savagery as angrily conceived as any in art. The grotesque changes alternate with the naturalistic. An apparent disinterest in color is confounded by canvases of vibrant color -- delicious or expressive. Permanent bronze sculptures contrast with flimsy, transient con structions that have surely survived the clutter and chaos of his studios only because he actually valued them more than photographic records might suggest.

L'H^otel Sal'e is every bit a museum. It is not a re-creation of a Picasso environment. Order reigns. Chronology predominates. This is, after all, to be the permanent home of over 200 paintings, more than 3,000 drawings and prints, plus sculptures, ceramics, papiers coll'es, and tableaux reliefs, which were not donated by the artist and his heirs, but claimed (after the passage of a new law) in lieu of inheritance taxes. This is the official French Picasso monument: a place to preserve and study one of the most remarkable artists to have lived in a country that (until perhaps today) was not short of outstanding artists.

But if this suggests a cold, clinical institution, it couldn't be further from the truth. The new Mus'ee Picasso is a train of pleasures. The attractions of the building happily suit the often domestic essence of the art: Children and animals are its theme almost as much as the habitual exploration of womankind. A remarkable balance of building and art has been achieved. Art absorbs the attention (and there are surprises as well as the familiar) but the architecture enhances it. The ``galleries'' -- sti ll, in fact, rooms -- vary in size, level, and feel. Some are open and filled with sunlight; others are dark and secretive. The cellars, pillared and vaulted, are particularly appealing -- somewhat cryptlike, reached via a glass-roofed sculpture court.

The museum's scrupulous taste on every side is lightened by touches of humor: the cat sculpture that stalks along a wall's edge, the ceramic owls perched in high, unexpected places, the artist's chair-palette encased on some back stairs.

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Memorabilia are kept to a fortunate minimum (except in the case of Picasso's outstanding collection of paintings by other artists, and African sculpture), although occasional cases of photographs and documentary evidence serve to remind one that the often messy richness of an artist's career is very easily distorted by the tidy habits of museums.

Although Picasso is here ``framed on a wall'' once and for all, Paris has done him proud -- with warmth and grandeur.

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