T he mid to late 1950s were a particularly important period for Picasso’s mature work and Le repos du faune, painted in June 1956, offers a singular and highly moving insight into the artist’s mindset during these crucial years.
In November of that year Picasso’s old rival and friend, that other ‘great’ of Modern art, Henri 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.
Immediately evident in this work is Picasso’s desire to examine historical tropes, and revisit mythological motifs found in classic painting and sculpture.
“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”
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 this 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).
The composition reads 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 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. The fine pen and ink lines add expression and emphasis, 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.