In 1917 Picasso traveled to Italy to join Diaghilev’s ballet company, working on their first collaboration of costumes and set design for a production of Parade. This also marked the first time Erik Satie composed music for ballet while Jean Cocteau created the premise of the one-act work. It was alongside this group of fantastically creative colleagues that Picasso encountered ancient Greek and Roman art, both in Rome and Naples. He was especially impressed with the sculptures he viewed at the Farnese Collection as well as the ruins of Pompeii, across the bay from Naples. Just a few years later, again with Diaghilev’s ballet, Picasso would find himself in London where he studied in detail the robed figures from the pediment of the Parthenon which form a portion of the Elgin Marbles (see fig. 1). The diaphanous drapery on the female bodies in the remaining portions of the pediment serve to show more than they hide, and the overall effect is firmly of the nude—or nearly nude—female body, carved here in monumental scale.
Monumentality and the visual tricks used to achieve this effect were a focus for Picasso during his Neoclassical period. His nude bathers from 1906 (see lot 23) through to his 1909 cubist nudes of Fernand Olivier all toyed with corporeal heft (see fig. 2), and so too did these early 1920s examinations of the female form whose protagonists are set either in an undefined interior space or against a Mediterranean-inspired seaside. Deux nus is directly related to Deux baigneuses, now in the collection of the Musée Picasso (Zervos, vol. IV, no. 202; see fig. 3) and the large-scale oil Deux femmes nues assises, now in the collection of the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen (Zervos, vol. IV, no. 217; see fig. 4). Writing about the oil from this group, John Richardson states “The way Picasso combines figures and draperies into a single configuration—a feature of the Two Nudes as well as the… small paintings, drawings, and pastels that derive from it—has to do with his ever growing urge to become a sculptor. John Quinn, the American collector who purchased Two Nudes and Three Women at the Spring and several other classical paintings, referred to them as his ‘bronze figures.’… In the Two Nudes it looks as if they are carved out of a single block of stone…. The magnification in these paintings afflicts those parts of the body—hands, feet, and noses—which protrude and are closest to the viewer. In his quest for gigantism Picasso has looked back at the devices that enabled classic sculptors to monumentalize their figures—devices he had learned from studying the Farnese Marbles in Naples. However, he did not make off with the sacred fire of classicism for mere stylistic considerations. He did so because he wanted to bend classicism to his will, Picassify it, question its sacrosanct proportions and the time-honored notions of ideal beauty on which they were supposedly based. In parodying classicism, he subverts it” (J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso, The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932, New York, 2010, p. 158).
Picasso's approach was also heavily indebted to Cézanne's depictions of bathers (see fig. 5), particularly evident in the present work, where the solidity of the figures and the distortion of perspective is reminiscent of the post-Impressionist artist's own manipulations of form and space at the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps most importantly, Picasso's bathers exhibited his great strength as a draughtsman and his ability to adapt the Classical Greek physical ideal to the modern age. This classical association aligned Picasso with the celebrated artists of the past, and allowed the most avant-garde artist of the twentieth century to take his place among the most influential figures in the history of Western art. This alignment with the great artists of the past would become a virtual obsession of Picasso’s later years when in depth analysis and interpretation of works of art by Velasquez, Poussin and Manet would form entire series in his 1950s and 1960s oeuvre.
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