STANDARDS OF EXCELLENCE: THE BLEMA AND H. ARNOLD STEINBERG COLLECTION
Picasso and Olivier arrived in Barcelona to much fanfare. This all proved rather overwhelming to Olivier, who promptly burst into tears and had to be packed off for a night’s rest before further introductions were made. Several weeks passed in Barcelona before the couple embarked on what was to be their greatest adventure, and most strenuous transport, yet. On mule-back they wended their way far up into the Pyrenees mountains to the small hamlet of Gósol. This village, set in the mountains, was accessible only by foot or mule and, Olivier related, the mountain passes were often so precipitous that her knees would bruise on one side while on the other free, open air struck from a sheer drop. It would all be worth it. In Gósol, “Fernande could not resist telling her friends what rapture life was, ‘up there in air of incredible purity, above the clouds, surrounded by people who were amiable, hospitable and without guile… we found out what happiness could be like…. No cloud shed discord on Picasso and me, because, having no cause for jealousy, all his worries had disappeared.’ Never again would the two of them be as happy as they were in this Garden of Eden. For the first time a feeling of exultation irradiates Picasso’s work, in particular the portraits of Fernande that celebrate her beauty, serenity and sensuality. Fernande had lived with Picasso for almost a year and had known him for twice that long, but it was at Gósol that her presence really makes itself felt in his work. Away from the pressures and distractions of Montmartre, not to speak of the eternal money problems, the artist recaptured his innocence and divine energy. And, as he did with one mistress after another, he fantasized the he was God creating a new Eve. Portraits of Fernande done over the next few months give off an incandescent glow” (J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso, Volume I, 1881-1906, New York, 1991, pp. 444-45).
The majority of the local townspeople, farmers and shepherds, made much of their living through smuggling. Picasso enjoyed joining in such capers as well as hunts in the surrounding countryside. Olivier in turn took careful note of the modes of entertainment in the village, which seemed often as not to revolve around religious festivals. One of the only artworks of note in the town was a twelfth-century sculpture of the Virgin and Child, now in the permanent collection of the Museu d'Art de Catalunya in Barcelona (see fig. 2). John Richardson credits this sculpture, as much as the often-cited references to Iberian Art displayed at the Louvre, as a firm inspiration for much of Picasso’s 1906 production: “A major revelation of Gósol was the remarkable twelfth-century Madonna and Child (the Santa Maria del Castell de Gósol) that has now been removed to the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona. This left more of a mark on Picasso’s work than is generally allowed…. In Gósol, with only one work of art to hand: this Madonna. Its hieratic stylizations—the Madonna’s wide-open, staring eyes and eyebrows emphatically drawn in as if by a cosmetician—will be a feature of his work for the next six months” (ibid., pp. 451-52). Buste de femme nue possesses these eyebrows and wide, staring eyes. A synthesis of Fernande’s beauty and the formidable concreteness of Romanesque sculpture.
Buste de femme nue is one of a series of drawings, many now in museum collections, which inform a large-scale oil he was to complete in Paris in the fall of 1906 (see fig. 3). Olivier and Picasso had intended to stay in Gósol into the early fall but left suddenly in August due to a contagious fever which appeared overnight in one of the residents of the only inn in Gósol where the couple was lodging. Rolled canvases, sheaves of drawings and suitcases of belongings were hurriedly packed and loaded onto mules, and the couple wended their way out of the Pyrenees. On their return to Paris, the Bateau-Lavoir was even more unbearable than when they had left it—rodent infested and boiling hot. Picasso was, however, renewed and full of energy. He set to work drawing, painting, sculpting, visiting exhibitions, working again on the portrait of Gertrude Stein and reconfiguring her face to evoke his new ideal of facial characteristics. In his dual focus on Stein and Olivier these solid, sculptural bodies emerged from his sketchbooks. “While Two Nudes constitutes a high point in Picasso’s strictly pictorial investigation of the possibilities and limits of figuration in 1906,” Margaret Werth writes, “… it is certainly more than a formal exercise. Like the pictorial space Picasso represents, the work itself is liminal, marking the threshold between the transformation at Gósol during the summer of 1906 and those of the Demoiselles in the spring and summer of 1907. The painting is also liminal in that it situates itself between formal investigation and allegorical or narrative subject; between the classical and the archaic or primitive; between materialization and dematerialization of the body; between figuration and disfiguration; and between masculine and feminine” (Picasso, The Early Years 1892-1906 (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. & Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1997-98, p. 277).
Pierre Daix goes further, believing that what Picasso took on during this period stripped back the artifice which had clouded the last several centuries of artistic practice: “He extended the simplifications of the mask to the naked body, expressing these simplifications in abstract, geometric forms. The growing number of drawings and paintings reveals an almost voluptuous desire to explore the possibilities of the human figure beyond anything that had already been done, to perfect primordial balances hitherto unknown…. Picasso did not try to make himself into a primitive after the fashion of Gauguin. He wanted rather—with the help of primitive vision—to cleanse art of what he called tricks, of the stale and paralyzing conventions which were merely sham compared to the profound truths of painting. He established that art, at its origins, was capable of an expressive force so powerful that even the great classic centuries might be said to have weakened rather than strengthened it” (P. Daix, Picasso, Life and Art, New York, 1993, p. 62). Buste de femme nue is an evocative example of this essential art, created at the moment in which Picasso fractures art history and fully devotes himself to his next great canvas Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
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