The Attraction Exercised by Blue on Picasso's Imagination
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The attraction exercised by blue on Picasso's imagination lasted until the beginning of 1904. It was so obsessive that when he had to pay his tailor Soler with a portrait-was the Barcelona equivalent of the pastry-cook Murer who used to feed Pissarro and Renoir-he Plunged him into an indigo darkness which did not fail to enhance the melancholy and the innate distinction of that excellent man. This Portrait of Soler ( 1903) as well as that of the poet Sabartès ( 1901), now also in Moscow, attest to Picasso's fundamental romanticism which he will often suppress, especially in his later portraits.
In 1904 and 1905, when he has settled down in Paris for good, Picasso gradually abandons monochrome, the lengthened proportions, and the precious arabesque of gesture. To the blues are now added ochers and pinks; there appear new themes: traveling showmen, acrobats, and their daily life. The melancholy, the poignant solitude of the figures persist for some time. In the Boy with Dog the boy, as famished as his animal friend, roams in a suburban landscape; his nostalgia is lit by a fragile blue light which envelops him on all sides.
The tone brightens, however, and the Girl on a Ball ( 1905), perhaps one of the last in the series of mountebank scenes, could have appealed to Morosov by its tender symphony of pinks and blues. It is also one of the finest in the series. In the opposition between the brute force of the athlete and the aerial gracefulness of the girl there is the naïveté of a street song. Picasso will always have the knack of extracting from life this essential and fresh note, the fundamental truth of a body, of an attitude, of an expression; how can one forget the exquisite uncertainty of the slender arms groping for support in the air, how can one fail to be struck by this back, muscular and vast, rugged like a dream landscape, the back of an ignudo by Michelangelo or Rosso? Which masters have surpassed the sensitive assurance of outline, the triumphant fancy in the modeling?
This silhouette of a Roman wrestler at rest announces a new spirit in Picasso's art: a world of the sun, of impassive certitude, of a flourishing physical life replaces the crepuscular and nostalgic limbo. For Picasso's Latinism the attraction of Mediterranean classicism will prove as irresistible, in these years, as later. His "classical" period will also be his "pink" period. The Nude Boy ( 1905), this gladiator's apprentice, comes from a race quite different from that of the little mountebank with the dog; and to the Woman of Majorca ( 1905), daughter of the Greeks and the Phoenicians, the melancholy of traveling showmen is entirely foreign.
We are in the heart of the Mediterranean, in the midst of a frenzy of ochers and blues; the drawing, the modeling carry memories of the spontaneous suppleness of Pompeian frescoes and the elegance of Alexandrian terra cottas. However, if the style betrays these reminiscences, they serve to endow the figures with an unsuspected youth, for there can be nothing less faithful to the classical canon than the body of this boy with its heavy legs and sinewy arms, nothing less tanagra-like than this translucid apparition traversed by tempestuous shadows.
The young Degas, when he painted the Spartan Girls Challenging Boys to a Fight, also abandoned for a while his portraits full of anxious thought and attempted a renewal of Antiquity; but the way he went about it was to study the nude according to the Ingresque academic vision and his Spartan nudes become dated. Picasso, in tackling nature and the Hellenistic tradition, was freer, fresher, more profoundly Mediterranean; he escaped the mark of an age. All his life, he will consider the art of others, the art of all civilizations and all centuries, as he will consider nature: as a pure pretext for a free invention. This alleged plagiarist will make us discover in the arts of the past poetical possibilities which centuries have failed to notice.
In 1906, at a moment when the inspiration coming from Greek art was at its apogee, he changed his manner. During a stay at Gosol, in the valley of Andorra, Picasso begins to stiffen the attitudes, to eliminate transitions from modeling, to give to volumes sculptural angularity: he was influenced, as he tells us himself, by the archaism of the ancient Iberian sculpture with which he apparently became acquainted at the Louvre already in the spring of that year. The recent discovery of these sculptures, their exhibition at the Louvre, the theft of one of the pieces in which the name of Guillaume Apollinaire was gratuitously involved -- all this drew the attention of the circle around Picasso to this art. This stylization in the direction of a rough art is the modest beginning of a process of which the whole historical significance is still difficult to estimate. Picasso, suddenly tired of classical equilibrium and serenity, turns to deformations and severe simplifications.
In 1907, this new style culminates in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, a gathering of several nude prostitutes, their bodies angular, as though carved out of tin, and composed of geometricized planes, their faces of a trenchant or simply monstrous ugliness. The construction of some of the faces is modeled on Iberian sculpture; others, the most barbarous ones, will be reworked later under the influence of Negro masks from the French Congo or the Ivory Coast. The absence of all feeling, of all spiritual life in these figures is remarkable; the only thing that can move us in them is their pathetic ugliness. Within a few years, Picasso's lyricism passed from the fin-de-siècle sentimentality of the blue pictures to a purely formal suggestion of feelings, whether of a classical serenity or of a heartrending anguish before the turpitudes of life.
It is said that Les Demoiselles d'Avignon horrified Shchukin. "I remember," recounts Gertrude Stein, "that Shchukin, who was so fond of Picasso's paintings, happening to be in my house, said to me weeping: "What a loss for French art." This occurred apparently in 1908. Yet, within a year, two at the utmost, three canvasses painted in 1908 and hardly less aggressive entered the Moscow palace: the Three Women, the Dryad, and The Farmer's Wife. A measure of difference from Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, however, rendered these pictures perhaps more acceptable to a taste already inured by the art of Matisse to certain deformations: the plasticity of the figures is much more explicit, their movements more natural.
As a matter of fact, in the course of 1908 Picasso abandoned stylization and emphasized the relief of bodies by reducing them to powerful geometricized volumes. He thus embarked on the first phase of Cubism, a new method of expressing the vital energy of the human figure, of still life, and of landscape. The Dryad appears fittingly among the trees of a dense and dark wood. Is she seated? Is she about to leap? She is nothing but the embodiment of converging energies, and, before learning that she is divine, we know that she is indestructible, that she is as fierce as the wild beasts whose faculty of sudden relaxation is also hers.
The Farmer's Wife, her shape as though squared with a sickle, heavy with a formidable poise, digs herself into a green and brown soil; with raised face and clenched fists, obstinate and generous like the earth itself, she defies rain and drought. The Farmer's Wife is known to have been painted in Rue-des-Bois, a village near Creil; perhaps even the name of the peasant woman who inspired Picasso can be ascertained. One thing is sure: the Farmer's Wife needs neither native country nor model; Picasso has achieved the renewal of the impersonal greatness and symbolic intensity of this kind of figure, after Bruegel, Millet, Van Gogh, and Cézanne.
The Three Women offers a considerably softened version of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon· Their traits have become more regular, their ample and healthy bodies relax in the midst of greenery under a caressing light. The interplay of volumes under this radiance is so rich that the figures appear to be moving, drawing backward or forward, overlapping, like a reflected and slightly ruffled image. We are in front of one of the great experiments in painting in our century: no longer the attempt to suggest on the flat surface of a picture an illusory depth but simultaneous aspects of forms moving in space.
This striving is evident in all subjects tackled by Picasso, but the still lifes which attest to it from the very beginning of Cubism are very few in number. We may, therefore, single out the Still Life with Skull which dates from 1907. It is a most traditional theme, frequent in painting since the seventeenth century and representing the allegory of Vanity; the objects are chosen to serve as symbols: the pipe evokes the pleasures of taste, the palette with brushes is the attribute of art, the books are the emblem of knowledge, and the skull is intended as a gloomy reminder that the life of the senses and of the mind is but transitory.
Was this Picasso's actual intention? He had wanted to paint Vanity a few months before when, in the first sketch for Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, he had placed beside the prostitutes a man holding a skull in his hand. But perhaps he was merely adopting a traditional choice of objects. Be this as it may, an arbitrary perspective which makes the objects rise against the table, a virulent rhythm of angles and curves, a solemn alternation of browns, reds, violets, and sustained blues, confer on this still life a tragic vehemence.
There will be nothing comparable among Picasso's still lifes until about 1930 to its thick outlines, its varied colors applied in large zones, its vertical and bristling composition. Picasso abandoned, often for years at a time, certain objectives, certain directions, after evincing his interest for them in works that he conceived suddenly and are always remarkable. The rhythm of his development is as though syncopated.
Modern Art Masters
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