A number of events shaped the tenor of this decade. In 1954 the works that had been shown at Picasso’s retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1939 were repatriated to France offering him the opportunity to look back on paintings from all the key periods of the first four decades of his career. Then in the November of that year Picasso’s old rival and friend, that other ‘great’ of Modern art, Matisse, died. His death had a profound impact on Picasso and inspired the major series of the decade in the Femmes d’Algers. At much the same time, he acquired the villa La Californie which provided a new and more permanent base on France’s Mediterranean coast and was to prove a renewed source of inspiration. The following years were defined by both a great flourishing of creativity and, underpinning it, a new awareness of mortality.
It is within this context that Picasso painted Le repos du faune. The classical idiom and precise stylisation of the work recall most closely that of his 1930s Suite Vollard and the various drawings and watercolours from that decade that also adopt a classical subject. Those works very often explore ideas of nature and art, or the theme of creativity but in the present work Picasso’s focus is different. He often drew on his Mediterranean surroundings for inspiration; as he once commented: ‘It’s strange; in Paris I never drew fauns, centaurs or mythological heroes […]. They always seem to live in these parts’ (quoted in Roland Penrose, Picasso. His Life and Work, London, 1958, p. 144). Yet whilst the central figure might evoke the felicitous characters that often populated the artist’s classical world, and the series of aquatints he later made of this subject are usually known by the title Bacchanale, this seems a misnomer; the subject of bacchanalian revelry does appear in Picasso’s art and there are works from a similar date, apparently related to Le repos du faune, that clearly depict the bacchanal, but the mood is quite different to the present work.
Here even the faun is stripped of his mischievous, often playfully suggestive function and the three figures each seem lost in their own thoughts. The composition reads more easily as an allegory on the three ages of men, and it relates closely to an earlier gouache of that title. However, it seems that Picasso is attempting something more ambitious here. The faun, who was sometimes an alter-ego for the artist, takes on the role of creator here, appearing to ‘play’ the scene into existence, but Picasso is more clearly present in both the standing figures. The features of the boy on the left are markedly similar to those of the harlequins from his Rose period (fig. 1) and the striped top of the figure on the right was a common element of photographs of the artist and paintings from this later period. In this respect Le repos du faune reads as a meditation on the ages of the artist; the artist as an old man contemplates his youth, the artist as young man stares right back, and the familiar classical iconography works as a cipher to facilitate this temporary conflation of past and present.
The exquisite handling is typical of Picasso’s technical mastery; the fine pen and ink lines add expression and emphasis, they allow him to trace his past achievements on the face of the left-hand figure, they allow for the wistful air of the figure on the right and the slightest suggestion of a smile at the exploits of his youth. These are countered by a broader application of gouache with the blue and green providing the Mediterranean warmth that pervades the oils of the period, and the white and black creating a dynamic orchestration of light and shade. This interplay of light and dark recalls the prints and drawings of the 1930s which must have been in Picasso’s mind as he worked, but the design is also surely influenced by his work in ceramics, begun the previous decade at the Madoura studio in Vallauris. Picasso was evidently particularly pleased with the composition; he subsequently made it the subject of a series of aquatints and the original work remained part of his collection until his death.
Picasso’s work, so accurately dated, is often read as a diary documenting his feelings and experiences from one day to the next. In the present work we have a beautiful articulation of the artist taking stock and contemplating the achievements of his past with a more considered reflection than often appears in his late work. In his oft-quoted comment to the journalist Marius de Zayas in 1923, Picasso had stated: ‘To me there is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot live always in the present it must not be considered at all. The art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not an art of the past; perhaps it is more alive today than ever it was’ (M. de Zayas, ‘Picasso Speaks’, in The Arts, New York, May 1923). It is interesting to realise the extent to which, more than three decades later, that had become true of his own art, and that is nowhere more evident than in Le repos du faune.
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