The Shared Artistic Language of Pablo Picasso & Alexander Calder

The Shared Artistic Language of Pablo Picasso & Alexander Calder

As major works by Pablo Picasso and Alexander Calder star in Sotheby's upcoming Impressionist, Modern & Contemporary Art | An Evening Sale, we look at the relationship between the two seminal 20th-century artists, the lasting impact they each had on the other's practice and their legacy in the story of modernist abstraction.

(from left) Pablo Picasso, Buste de femme assise, 1962, estimate $8,000,000 – 12,000,000; Alexander Calder, Mariposa, 1951, estimate $6,000,000 – 8,000,000.

On 8 December, two Modern masterworks will highlight Impressionist, Modern & Contemporary Art | An Evening Sale: Pablo Picasso’s Buste de femme assise, dating from 1962, and Alexander Calder’s Mariposa, dating from 1951.

P ablo Picasso and Alexander Calder were never friends – despite the fact that the artists both lived and worked in Paris between the First and Second World Wars. In part, that was due to the language barrier: the former didn’t speak English, and the latter was not particularly good at French or Spanish. But the pair shared a visual language: both were moved to explore alternate perceptions of reality through the language of abstraction.

“Neither [Calder nor Picasso] repeated himself...They always intended to do something new—always in their own language.”
Bernard Ruiz-Picasso (“How Calder and Picasso Were Brought Together By Their Grandsons,” ‘Town & Country’, 10 October 2016)

Alexander CALDER at the Louis CARRE gallery in Paris, 1946. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

It is difficult to know precisely how Picasso affected Calder's formative art education. According to Calder, his first introduction to Picasso's art was in books at his father's home.1 Seventeen years Calder's senior, Picasso was well established in the Paris art scene by the time Calder began his two-year education at the Arts Student League in 1923. Several of Calder's instructors at the school, including Boardman Robinson, John Graham and John Sloan, taught him to draw with an authoritative, single-line – a style that Picasso pioneered. "Both Graham and Robinson also might have acknowledged Picasso's drawings of the 1920s, which feature single-line studies," notes art historian Joan Marter, in the context of Calder's exposure to the artist's work.2 And art historian Dore Ashton wrote that Picasso's single-line, whimsical harlequin drawings of 1918 may have influenced Calder's wire-line caricatures.3

Pablo Picasso at his home in Cannes, circa 1960. (Photo by Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)

When Calder arrived for his first stay in Paris in 1926, he and Picasso shared a mutual friend in Joan Miró, who likely introduced the sculptor to Picasso’s work. According to Sandy Rower, Calder's grandson and the director of the Calder Foundation, the two artists initially met in 1931, at the Galerie Percier. It was Calder's first exhibition of his abstracts, and Picasso arrived early to the private viewing in order to introduce himself and study Calder's radical new works.4

Critics drew comparisons between Calder and Picasso throughout their careers – one French paper even went so far as to name Calder “the American Picasso”5 – but there's no evidence that the parallel sparked a rivalry. Their most famous coming-together was in 1937 when each was invited to create a work for the Spanish Republic’s pavilion at the World’s Fair. On the ground floor, Picasso presented what would become perhaps the most famous painting of the 20th century, Guernica. Its closest companion was Mercury Fountain by Calder, a mesmerizing sculpture in which mercury pumped through a water fountain. (The third major work at the 1937 World’s Fair was by their mutual friend, Joan Miró’s monumental The Reaper).

Neither artist was especially political, yet both came down on the side of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. The conflict was at its height during the World’s Fair (May to November 1937): Guernica served as a lament for the destruction of the eponymous Basque town, Mercury Fountain as a symbol of Republican resistance (Nationalist forces had recently failed to capture the vast mercury mines of Almadén, south of Madrid).

Today, we consider Calder and Picasso as two titans of Modernism, each in his own right and with his own legacy. But together, the artists offer us two interpretations on a similar theme – that which, in the exhibition catalogue for its 2019 exhibition ‘Calder-Picasso’, the Musée national Picasso-Paris describes as “the void”:

Calder and Picasso wanted to present or represent non-space, whether by giving definition to a subtraction of mass, as in Calder’s sculpture, or by expressing contortions of time, as in Picasso’s portraits. Calder externalized the void through curiosity and intellectual expansion, engaging unseen forces in ways that challenge dimensional limitations, or what he called “grandeur-immense”. Picasso personalized the exploration, focusing on the emotional inner self.
“Calder-Picasso.” Musée Picasso Paris. Musée national Picasso-Paris, September 2019.

On 8 December, Sotheby’s is delighted to offer two important works by Calder and Picasso in the Impressionist, Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale.

Calder’s Mariposa is a magnificent example of the artist’s iconic hanging mobiles. At once gracefully delicate and impressively scaled, the sculpture brilliantly distills the crucial elements that define Calder’s renowned theory and practice. Mariposa also features a highly distinguished provenance, having resided in the famed Neiman Marcus Collection since it was commissioned by Stanley Marcus in 1951.

Painted over the course of several days in June of 1962, Buste de femme assise stands out within the series of paintings devoted to Picasso’s great muse and lover, Jaqueline Roque. As in the present work, Picasso often depicted Jacqueline in “double-profile,” a stylistic device which harkens back to his cubist experiments with multiple view-points. The present work exemplifies the force and freedom that Picasso only achieved in the last decade of his career.

Following the guidelines for the Phase Four reopening of Manhattan, we are able to accommodate clients in our building by appointment only. The exhibition for this sale will open on 1 December and will close on 8 December at 5PM. To schedule an appointment please click here or contact or +1 212 606 7171. You can read more about our safety requirements here.

  1. Williams, Reba, and Dave Williams. “The Influence of Picasso on American Printmakers.” Print Quarterly 13, no. 3 (September 1996): 259–86.
  2. J.M. Marter, Alexander Calder, Cambridge and New York 1991, p. 20
  3. D. Ashton, ‘The Forging of New Philosophical Armatures: Sculpture Between the War and Ever Since’, Picasso and the Age of Iron, exhibition catalogue, New York, Guggenheim Museum, 1993, p. 40.
  4. Tattoli, Chantel. “Celebrating Pablo Picasso and Alexander Calder's Symbiosis.” Architectural Digest. Condé Nast, February 13, 2019.
  5. Chantel, op cit.
Impressionist & Modern Art

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