Pierre Daix & Joan Rosselet, Le Cubisme de Picasso. Catalogue raisonné de l'œuvre peint 1907-1916, Neuchâtel, 1979, no. 304, recto illustrated p. 247 (as possibly dating from 1909 and with incorrect measurements)
Like many of his contemporaries at the time, Picasso was fascinated by examples of tribal art and began to absorb these stylistic influences into his own works. Deux femmes assises was painted at the height of his engagement with tribal art and was included in the seminal 'Primitivism' in 20th Century Art exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1984-85. In the catalogue accompanying the exhibition William Rubin wrote of the work’s distinctive style: ‘I am convinced that the very uniqueness of Two Seated Women follows from the fact that it was to some extent a paraphrase, experimental or celebratory, of an equally unusual watercolour by Gauguin [fig. 1] … the mirror-image symmetry of Two Seated Women, wholly unexpected in Picasso, is a peculiarity that suggests a particular model’ (W. Rubin, in 'Primitivism' in 20th Century Art. Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, op. cit., p. 244). Gauguin made his version shortly after his arrival in Tahiti and his drawing is clearly closely-observed from life; Picasso’s relative distance from the source allowed him to take greater liberties and apply his own imaginative approach to the subject. The idol at the centre of Gauguin’s work becomes a vase of flowers in Deux femmes assises and similarly, although the figures retain the powerful simplicity of Gauguin’s women, they are released from the same austere symmetry and frontality.
These changes are crucial and suggest that the artist was thinking through some wider concept. The pencil drawing on the verso has long been identified as one of the preliminary studies for L’Offrande (1908, Von der Heydt Museum, Wuppertal). However, close comparison with the other, more fully-conceived studies for the oil suggests that Deux femmes assises may also have been an important step in the development of the final composition of L’Offrande. In particular, the penultimate study, now in the Museu Picasso (fig. 2) shows a very similar arrangement of the figures – although here they both appear to be male – and the subliminal association of the central female figure and the bouquet of flowers finds an echo in vase of flowers in Deux femmes assises. It is a typically Picassan translation of an idea: Gauguin’s original arrangement, with all its hieratical precision is transformed and the associative powers of its ‘primitive’ source are absorbed as a means of conveying a powerful expressive force.
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