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Chance Encounters, Edition 15
Pablo Picasso, part 4: After Cubism
The period between the two world wars was productive for Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973). Inspired by the women with whom he was involved, the births of his first two children, his collaborations with the Ballets Russes, and new friendships among leading poets and artists of the day, the artist developed new artistic styles and themes.
Toward the end of World War One, Picasso began collaborating with the Ballets Russes, beginning with sets and costumes for Parade, a ballet set to music by Erik Satie. During this collaboration, the artist met ballerina Olga Khokhlova; they were married in 1918. The apparently unfinished portrait of Khokhlova (reproduced above) may surprise the viewer who thinks of Picasso’s work as primarily based in Cubism. In this work, Picasso returns to the carefully modeled, life-like style in which he was trained. The woman’s cool elegance in this portrait has inspired comparisons to the 19th century Neoclassical portraits of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, which he is known to have seen in that artist’s retrospective in 1905. At the same time, other artists, including Picasso’s former colleague Georges Braque, were creating similarly naturalistic portraits with reserved, carefully posed sitters.
The composition, chair, dress, and accessories seen in the painted portrait can be found in a photograph from the same period. In fact, Picasso recreated the details of the photograph very precisely. However, the busy background of the photograph isn’t included in the painting and it’s not really possible to know why Picasso spent so much energy completing the figure and the upholstery but left the background almost completely empty. Artists have many reasons for leaving works incomplete, but in this case, the virtually empty canvas surrounding the figure intensifies the focus on the pale young woman emerging from the dark garden of the chair and dress.
In common with many other artists, Picasso turned away from his radical pre-war style around 1918. In a movement called the Return to Order, artists abandoned their abstract styles and created naturalistic works, often with roots in the classical past. The brutality, massive destruction, and millions of injured and dead of the First World War had been a terrible shock to Europeans; this new approach seemed to create a sense of reassurance for artists and their audiences. Mother and Child is typical of many works Picasso created during this phase of his career. The background is simplified and suggestive of a beach. The skin tones are warm and stand out from the neutral gray landscape and the gray-white clothing. The bulky figures are reminiscent of pre-classical and even prehistoric Greek art, rather than the slender, graceful figures of later classical Greek and Roman art. The movement of the baby in this painting is especially lifelike and was inspired by Picasso’s observations of his first child, Paulo, born in 1921, the same year this was painted. In the first two years of Paulo’s life, the artist returned to the mother and child theme at least a dozen times.
Mother and Child originally included a male figure to the left of the composition. The most noticeable hint of the change in the finished version is the darker gray patch in the sky at the left edge of the canvas. The cut-off section of canvas survives and, like the final painting, is in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. The museum had purchased Mother and Child in 1954; in 1968, it received the fragment showing part of the male figure as a gift from Picasso himself. The image above shows the two parts of the composition reunited. The composition was, in my opinion, strengthened by being reduced. The father figure wasn’t well integrated with the mother and child and could only have seemed an outsider if the composition had remained as Picasso originally laid it out.
The Lovers, painted two years later, reflects Picasso’s varied approaches during this period. Though works in the style of Mother and Child dominate his production, he was still creating works in the Synthetic Cubist style (see Edition 11 ) and also was modifying his classical style for portraits, harlequins, acrobats, and dancers. The bright palette and white-skinned figures have a theatrical quality and remind us that Picasso was still producing designs for the Ballets Russes at this date. The gentle interactions between the figures here and in Mother and Child recall similar qualities in the artist’s Blue and Rose Period paintings (1901-1906). As it developed, the Cubist style was devoted to solving problems of visual form – the deconstructing of representational form and the recreation of it into a new abstract reality. Now we see Picasso reintegrating emotion into his work.
In the mid-1920s, the Surrealist movement was on the rise and one of the founders of that movement, poet and writer Andre Breton, declared Picasso to be “one of ours.” Though he participated in the first Surrealist exhibition in 1925, Picasso exhibited only Cubist works. He had yet to apply lessons from Surrealism: dream-like qualities, symbolic distortions of reality, and disjunctive combinations. Created in 1925, the monumental, over seven-foot-tall Three Dancers is a major statement of Picasso’s new approach – an expressionistic blend of Cubist forms and Surrealist ideas that convey complex and sometimes contradictory feelings of violence and sexuality. Three Dancers began as a scene of dancers in the artist’s classical style, and though traces of that remain, primarily in the central figure, the dancers have been elongated and distorted in ways which blend Picasso’s Cubist past and influence from Surrealism. The dancer to the right is a mix of white, brown, and black planes topped by two overlapping profile heads, one brown and the other black. Are there two dancers or are these two facets of a single person? The overlapping planes are derived from Synthetic Cubism but the ambiguous meaning has more in common with Surrealism, a movement which values the viewer’s response as much as the artist’s intended meaning. The dancer to the left is different from any figure Picasso had painted to this date. The pink tones of her legs, arm, neck and head link her to the center dancer, but the face with its large black eyes and open toothy mouth is a startling contrast to the other figures’ schematic features. Some features of this head hark back to African masks which inspired Picasso when he was painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), as discussed in Chance Encounters, Edition 7. The left dancer’s pose is more ecstatic and extreme than her colleagues’ and she is partly clothed in a striped skirt or wrap while they are nude. In spite of these differences, the figures’ hands are joined, suggesting that art creates unity out of diversity.
The left dancer in Three Dancers prefigures Picasso’s approach to figures in his most Surrealist works – echoing patterns, voids opening to the background, and disturbing mask-like faces. These qualities feature prominently in Seated Bather of 1930. The background of this painting is similar to the beach settings of many of Picasso’s classical paintings, but the bluer water contrasts with the neutral sky, sand, and figure. The distorted female body is fossil-like; it looks hard and bony in spite of the curves of breasts, thighs, and buttocks. This effect is reinforced by the voids between limbs and in the torso and by the yellow-brown and gray colors. The face of this figure is odd and slightly disturbing, with eyes on a beaky protrusion and two curving toothy appendages. These must represent the mouth as two arms are found lower on the body, and the result is a figure that seems alien and truly Surreal, despite the conventional title.
The body of work one creates is a form of one’s diary. (“L’oeuvre qu’on fait est une façon de tenir son journal.”) - Pablo Picasso (quoted in L’Intransigeant, 15 June 1932)
It is nearly impossible to discuss Pablo Picasso’s work without making reference to his various love affairs and that is because the artist’s life is so thoroughly documented and analyzed. There’s no doubt that the women with whom he was involved inspired his work in important ways. Picasso’s relationship with his wife Olga began to deteriorate in the late 1920s and it’s difficult to avoid reading Seated Bather and other works depicting similarly distorted women as a reflection of the discord in the artist’s life, just as it is easy to see classical style works like Mother and Child as a reflection of his happiness early in his marriage. However, an artist’s personal life is not the only influence on their work. The Return to Order movement and Picasso’s new connections, first with the Ballet Russes and then the Surrealists, had major impacts on Picasso’s work in this period, as I have discussed.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s Picasso was inspired, partly by his affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter, to paint a series of female figures in which he shows mastery of Cubist and Surrealist ideas. The finest of these paintings is Girl Before a Mirror of 1932. The subject of a woman with her mirror had become a tradition in Western art, beginning during the Italian Renaissance. The idea of taking on this tradition and making it his own would have appealed to any ambitious artist and Picasso was never lacking in ambition. In Girl Before a Mirror, the artist represents a woman in Cubist form with different body parts seen from the front and side at the same time, reaching for a large oval mirror in which her reflection appears, again with Cubist distortions. The figure and mirror are surrounded by brightly colored, busy diamond and dot patterns that energize the painting. When I saw this work in person, I was struck by the scale of the figure. The canvas is several inches over five feet tall and the woman seemed life-sized. For me, this intensified the psychological impact of the scene. I felt like I was looking through a door or window into a world that was as real as the one I inhabited, although it was nothing like mine. This kind of response was a goal of many Surrealist artists and is one reason why I consider Girl Before a Mirror to be one of Picasso’s best works.
Picasso built many layers of meaning into the images and techniques he incorporated into this painting. The pale lavender profile of the girl’s face stands out from the yellow hair and from the red and yellow frontal face which it overlaps. Not just the color, but the application of paint sets these two shapes apart. Many possible dichotomies, moon and sun, shadow and light, youth and age, are embodied in that face. The reflected face is distorted in shape and color and the application of paint within the mirror is also rougher, with areas where darker layers below show through brighter top coats. The mirror reality is a dark and distorted one, perhaps symbolizing how different from our outward selves we feel inside.
The arms and the breasts of the girl draw attention after the face. One lavender arm rises along the orange support of the mirror. At its base is a green circle that links it to the other arm which stretches across the mirror. Where it intersects the mirror, the colors of this arm are distorted by the darker tones that characterize the reflection. Below the arms, a round lavender breast is wrapped by the lavender crescent of the further breast. The body of the girl and its reflection are more straightforward in comparison to the face. The rounded belly and the striped pattern are repeated in the reflection, with the main difference being the shift from profile to frontal view. A shadow of the arm in the form of a brown and dark red striped shape bisects the girl and mirror. That dark pattern is the only element that remains unchanged in and out of the mirror. Throughout the painting Picasso uses echoing shapes, patterns, and colors which unify the busy scene. The connections and divergences invite the viewer to consider various symbols and interpretations. In Girl Before a Mirror, Picasso combined the visually dynamic visual forms of Synthetic Cubism with the psychological intensity of Surrealism to create one of his most effective works of art.
Picasso’s focus on themes with purely personal resonance was broken with the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and the rise of Fascism in Europe. Despite living in France almost exclusively since about 1904, Picasso always considered himself a Spaniard. He supported the Republican side in the Civil War and afterwards opposed the rule of the Fascist Francisco Franco. In January of 1937, the Republican government of Spain commissioned Picasso to create a mural for its pavilion in the 1937 Paris World’s Fair. In commissioning the work, the government hoped to raise awareness of the war, as well as raise funds. The subject of the mural was left to Picasso and at first he planned to depict an artist’s studio, a recurring theme in his career. That plan changed in early May after he learned of the bombing of the Spanish city Guernica by the Nazi German air force at the behest of the Fascists. The Fascists viewed Guernica as a center of the Republican resistance as well as a tactical target located along roads that could be used by the Republican forces to retreat. However, the city was mostly home to non-combatant women and children and the day of the bombing was market day, so the city was crowded with people. In the aftermath, the attack was widely condemned as a terror bombing of a civilian target. Picasso completed the painting in 35 days, driven by his general anti-war philosophy and the specific horror of the bombing.
The painting Guernica is over 11 feet tall and over 25 feet wide. It is painted in black, gray, and white, a color scheme intended to convey the idea of a documentary news photograph. The style of the painting, other than the palette, is the mix of Cubism and Surrealism Picasso had developed earlier in the decade. The paint was specially formulated for the artist, a house paint that would create a matte, non-reflective surface like the surface on which news is printed. Furthering this newsprint quality is the use of a pattern of small lines to give texture to the horse’s body; from a distance these read like newspaper print. In a shift from his usual preference for working in isolation, Picasso even allowed prominent visitors to enter his studio while he worked; this, he hoped would lead to publicity for the anti-fascist cause. A significant landmark in the artist’s career and in French and Spanish culture of the twentieth century, Guernica also demonstrated that it is possible to express an important political message in abstract form.
The evolution of Guernica was recorded in a series of photographs by Dora Maar (French, 1907-1997). In this picture of the first stage, we can see that most of the basic elements of the finished composition are already present: the woman weeping over her dead child, the bull, the dead man holding a broken sword, the horse, the lamp-bearer in a burning house, the wounded foreground woman, and the screaming woman at the right. Some prominent changes to this original conception are: the removal of the upright arm of the dead man and the simultaneous flipping of his head from right to left; the similarly flipped body of the bull; the lifting of the horse’s head to emphasize its suffering; the removal of a dead girl lying below the maimed woman; the simplification of the screaming woman; and the removal of a bird seen flying away at the right edge. Only one object is added to the composition from this early version: the white eye-shape containing a lightbulb and fringed below with pointed rays of light. In intermediate photographs, we learn that this feature had been a rayed sun which framed the raised fist of the dead man. The changes Picasso made helped to simplify the composition and to fill empty spaces, such as at the left side. The raised fist implied resistance and victory even in death; its absence shifts the painting’s focus to the violence inflicted on mostly innocent victims. The only sign of hope is the small flower growing from the broken sword in the dead man’s hand. The addition of the light reveals Picasso’s purpose in creating the painting – to reveal the horrors perpetrated by the fascists.
Guernica was exhibited at the World’s Fair as planned but attracted mixed reactions even within the Spanish delegation on whose behalf it was commissioned. Afterward it toured Europe with an exhibition of other works by Picasso, Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954), and Georges Braque. When the Spanish Civil War ended in the fascist victory, the painting was sent to the United States to raise funds and support for Spanish refugees. Exhibited in various cities around the U.S., then in Europe, and South America between 1939 and 1956, concerns for the painting’s condition led to it being kept at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City until 1981. Picasso refused to allow the painting to be transferred to Spain during his lifetime, specifying that the painting should only be given to Spain after its government was again a republic. Picasso died in 1973, Francisco Franco in 1975; Spain established a constitutional monarchy in 1978. The painting arrived in Spain in time to mark the hundredth anniversary of its creator’s birth. Today it is in the collection of Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid.
This edition is part of our series on Pablo Picasso in honor of the 50th anniversary of the artist’s death. If you missed our previous posts (Chance Encounters, Editions 3, 7, and 11), please look for them on our Substack page.