In the spring of 1932 Picasso had retired to the Château de Boisgeloup, his studio-retreat in Normandy, in the company of his new mistress and principal muse, Marie-Thérèse Walter. Closeted there, he continued a series of large plaster busts begun in 1931, “some monstrously beautiful effigies of Marie-Thérèse; totems that would protect him and his mistress against the evil of his wife” (J. Richardson in Through the Eye of Picasso 1928-34, New York, 1985, n.p.). Picasso’s experiences at Boisgeloup must have provided the inspiration for Nature morte à la tête classique et au bouquet de fleurs. Haunted by the absence of his mistress who had remained in Paris, Picasso re-created her image from memory.
During his sojourn in Cannes in the summer of 1933, Picasso would not create a single painting. His energy seems to have been focused almost entirely on one of the most accomplished groups of gouaches and watercolor of his entire artistic production. Picasso's personal life was in a relative shambles—his wife Olga was distraught about both his contemporary preoccupation with another woman and by the publication of his former lover, Fernande Olivier’s memoirs which cast Picasso in an unfavorable light—while his professional life, after his first large-scale museum exhibition in 1932 was reaching new heights. Such an unending amount of change, both personal and professional, found its escape at the seaside with this series of works that live in a dreamlike plane, calling on classical legends such as that of Pygmalion, the sculptor who created an image so beautiful he fell in love with it and, thanks to the intervention of Aphrodite, turned his sculpture into living, breathing flesh and that of Persephone, the daughter of Demeter who was stolen away by Hades to live half of every year in the underworld.
Throughout his career Picasso chose to paint subjects that represented his life as an artist, and the theme that came to symbolize his own life and work most evocatively was that of the painter and his model. In the present work, Picasso has subverted the traditional embodied interaction of artist and model—voyeur and voyee—and replaced these lead roles with sculpted avatars. In place of the artist is a large, bearded neo-classical head, while the model is substituted by a bas-relief sculpture affixed to the wall above a bouquet of flowers, echoing the graceful profile of Marie-Thérèse Walter.
Picasso’s work of the spring and summer of 1933 is dominated by two male characters, who appear to represent the artist’s alter-ego: the sculptor and the minotaur. Both are central images in the Vollard suite etchings commissioned in 1927 and published in 1937. The bearded man, as sculptor, appears in a number of these etchings and closely resembles the sculpted male head in the present watercolor. The sculptor tends to be depicted in the Vollard suite etchings and related drawings as an artist languorously studying his model, but in the present work the sculptor becomes the sculpture, filling the left hand side of the composition and gazing with a quiet air of knowledge. To the bust’s right hangs a relief of a woman in profile—this is Marie-Thérèse, whose Grecian features dominated Picasso’s artist output in the 1930s. The depiction of this relief is directly related to a work he had executed in plaster in 1931 (see fig. 1).
These sculpted heads and bodies occur in other works from July and August of 1933; almost always set in a room with the sea visible through an open window. Busts and statues of women and men hang on walls and perch on pedestals. Sometimes the large sculpted male head is set on a beach by a boat, seemingly alone, at other times groups of women gaze at a bust of another woman; in Le Sculpteur et la statue the artist sits at right, his elbow propped on an oversize male head staring at a full length female nude, perched on a bench and seemingly carved. There is ambiguity in her figure—is she a sculpture or alive (see fig. 2)?
Discussing a work of a similar subject, Elizabeth Cowling has made the following remarks: "Here, as in many paintings, drawings and prints of the Marie-Thérèse period, Picasso reflects on the relationship in his work between paintings ... and sculpture... The style of the painting as a whole seems intended to dramatize the oppositions between pictorial flatness and sculptural mass in the oppositions between pure line and bold areas of color on the one hand and gradations of light and dark on the other. The sculpted head is a synoptic reference to the earlier series of plaster heads inspired by Marie-Thérèse. The same head, raised on a tall plinth and sometimes garlanded with vines, in an object of veneration in several of the etchings in the 'Vollard Suite'" (Picasso: Sculptor/Painter (exhibition catalogue), Tate Gallery, London, 1994, p. 272). Numerous paintings in the early 1930s contained depictions of sculpted busts which appear to reference Marie-Thérèse; sometimes these busts exist as the central protagonist of a composition as in Nature morte aux tulipes of 1932 (see fig. 3) while in others the sculpture, or sculptures, are the object of focus of the male gaze—presumably that of its creator, visible in works such as Le Sculpteur (see fix. 4).
Not long after Picasso’s fiftieth birthday in October of 1931, he began a series of Ovidian etchings to celebrate a new publication of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and he would ultimately create a body of work over these years known collectively as the Vollard Suite. The image of the sculptor and his model served as one of the dominant themes of the Vollard Suite etchings commissioned in 1927 and published in 1937. Of the 100 etchings which make up the portfolio, the image of the sculptor in his studio occupies more than 30 plates: of these, most were executed in the spring of 1933. Hans Bollinger discusses the artist’s treatment of this image as follows: “The theme of the Sculptor in his studio... fascinated him… This is an infinitely quiet, archaic world, far removed from all bucolic gaiety. The sculptor’s face always shows the same intense concentration, and the model too breathes gravity and restraint. The model is shown in all sorts of positions, draped in many different ways; she becomes wholly a part of the artist’s work, of the atmosphere in which he lives…” (H. Bollinger, Picasso’s Vollard Suite, London, 1956, pp. XX-XI). The neoclassical influence, which was so prominent in Picasso’s work of the 1920s, is evident in the Vollard Suite while the dream like languor of his contentment with Marie-Thérèse finds its full expression in lyrical oils such as Le Rêve (see fig. 6).
While the ethereal classicism found in these Cannes-period works on paper would be unmatched in the years to come, Picasso's preoccupation with the theme of the artist and his model would not fade; indeed in the early 1960s the majority of Picasso's artwork would take as its theme a focused study of the painter an his model. In these works the artist almost always occupies the left hand side of the picture while the model stands, sits or reclines at right. In Le Peintre et son modèle, for example, the model stands against a green folding screen, while a bust of a bearded man perches at the far right of the composition (see fig. 5). While classicism was no longer in the front and center of Picasso's work, nods and hints of it still populated his canvases.
Edward James, a poet and a lifelong collector of art, is particularly remembered for his patronage of Surrealist painters including Dalí, Magritte, Tchelitchew, Fini and Carrington. He provided space for his artist friends to develop their creative practice. Dalí, Tchelitchew, Magritte and others were given studio space during extended stays in Edward's homes at West Dean and in London. He supported them further through commissions and collaborations, building one of the finest collections of Surrealist art in the world. When René Magritte offered to paint his portrait, to which James quickly acceded, James followed Magritte’s precise instructions for the composition of this portrait. He was to be photographed by Man Ray, seated, his hand tented, a rock nearby (see fig. 7). Man Ray captured this likeness which was in turn made into an oil by Magritte, Le Principe du Plaisir, where James’s very visage is obscured by a bright bulb of light.
Even in his youth, James was precocious. By the time he arrived at Oxford in 1926 he fully embraced what could only be called “the weird,” throwing off convention in the interior decoration of his rooms in the Canterbury Quad. Sharon-Michi Kusunoki writes of this time: “While not outwardly Surrealist, James’s designs and juxtapositions, which included speakers wired in to the classical busts of Roman emperors so that from their mouths ‘belched the latest in American and French music,’ questioned conventional reality and created a disjunction between object and function, and the organic and the inorganic, which in effect encouraged a form of participatory free association that can easily be linked with Surrealist practice” (A Surreal Life: Edward James 1907-1984 (exhibition catalogue), Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, Brighton, 1998, p. 21). Perhaps the sculpted head in Nature morte à la tête classique et au bouquet de fleurs reminded James of his Roman emperor speakers in his University housing. James owned several notable works by Picasso including other languidly beautiful portrayals of Marie-Thérèse such as Femme endormie (Zervos, vol. VIII, no. 245). The entirety of James’s life would be filled with art and creation: “During his lifetime, James described art as a magic box capable of taking one back through time far beyond the past” (ibid., p. 30).
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