Neoclassical Paintings by Picasso
Classical-style Figure Painting.
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Seated Woman by Picasso (1920).
Musee Picasso, Paris. One of the
greatest paintings in the classicist
genre of the twentieth century.

Neoclassical Paintings by Picasso (1906-30)
Early 20th century revival of classical figure painting

Contents

Picasso's Neoclassicism
Classical Academic Training
From Blues to Harlequin and Saltimbanque subjects
Classical Nudes
Influence of Braque
Classical Naturalism
Mother and Child Imagery
Impact of Surrealism
Picasso's Inventive Approach to Classicism

For a general guide to the evolution of painting,
see: History of Art (2.5 Million BCE -present).


EVOLUTION OF VISUAL ART
For details of art styles,
see: History of Art Timeline.

Picasso's Neoclassicism

In 1914, at the height of synthetic Cubism, its co-inventor Pablo Picasso began once again to draw and paint in a naturalistic manner. Three years later, when he was working for Diaghilev on the ballet "Parade", the number of these naturalistic works increased. This was, however, Picasso's second 'classical' period, for the Rose period of 1905-6 was in many respects a first run. Indeed the peculiar evolution of Picasso's classicism serves as a reminder that the wartime and post-war 'call to order' was not a new phenomenon, produced by the war, but a resurfacing within the avant-garde of a classicist movement which had been dominant at the beginning of the century, and whose own origins went back as far as the post-Impressionist 'call to order' of the 1880s. Viewed from this perspective, Picasso's Cubism could be seen as a kind of temporary interruption within the continuity of his classicism. Less perversely, it could be seen as another form of classicism - a revolutionary, 'abstract' form of classicism. This was, in effect, the line taken by those critics and artists, such as the Purists, who wanted to bring system and order to Cubism through referring back to the 'constants' of Greek art and its Roman followers. For more, please see: Classical Revival in modern art (c.1900-30).

Classical Academic Training

Picasso had a thorough training in academic art at a very young age. His first teacher was his father, himself a painter, but in 1892 Picasso enrolled in the art school in La Coruna where the family had moved the previous year. By 1894 he was executing accomplished academic drawings from antique casts, and when his father accepted a teaching post at the La Llotja school of art in Barcelona the following year, he had no difficulty in gaining admittance to the advanced classes. 'Science and Charity' (1897, Museu Picasso, Barcelona) was a precocious essay in academic moral narrative, and won official honours when it was exhibited in Madrid and Malaga. After a brief period at the Royal Academy of San Fernando in Madrid, Picasso abandoned his studies, and by the spring of 1899, back in Barcelona, he had become a regular at the bohemian cafe and art centre Els Quatre Gats, and was painting and drawing in the abstract, Symbolist style of Catalan Modernista artists like Santiago Rusinol and Ramon Casas. There he met the critic and philosopher Eugeni d'Ors, future theorist of Catalan Noucentisme, and, among many others, Julio Gonzalez and Manolo. Through these contacts Picasso became conversant with Parisian modern art, and his work began to resemble that of Toulouse-Lautrec, Forain and Steinlen.

From Blues to Harlequin and Saltimbanque subjects

In October 1900 Picasso made his first trip to Paris. He had a debut exhibition the following year at the gallery of Ambroise Vollard, and met the poet and critic Max Jacob, who became a lifelong friend. In Barcelona in 1902 the dominant blue tonality of his recent canvases was confirmed, and Parisian night-life subjects yielded to tragic scenes of beggars and prostitutes. In the spring of 1904 Picasso left Barcelona and settled in a dilapidated building in Montmartre, nicknamed the Bateau-Lavoir, where there was a thriving artists' community. From this point on he returned to Spain relatively rarely, and although he continued to mix with the large group of expatriate Spaniards in Paris, he also became a close friend of Apollinaire, Andre Salmon and Maurice Raynal. He made frequent visits to the nearby Cirque Medrano, and gradually the blue tonality of his work gave way to a predominant pink, and Harlequin and Saltimbanque subjects began to dominate his repertoire. Simultaneously the 'gothic' character of his Blue period gave way to a style derived from classical art, a change that owed much to his contacts with Apollinaire and with Jean Moreas, founder of the Ecole Romane which was dedicated to the revival of the art of classical antiquity.

Classical Nudes

Towards the end of 1905 a new objectivity entered Picasso's work, displacing the sentimentality of his Saltimbanque paintings. This development was encouraged by the J.A.D.Ingres retrospective exhibition held in the famous 1905 Salon d'Automne, and by the neoclassical work of rising artists such as Aristide Maillol (1861-1944). During the course of 1906, especially during his four-month stay in the village of Gosol in the Pyrenees, this classical tendency in Picasso's work was confirmed. His paintings took on a terracotta and grey tonality, forms were treated more volumetrically, and the references to classical Greek sculpture, to Ingres, and now also to Cezanne, increased. (See for example Two Nudes, 1906, Museum of Modern Art, New York.) His subject matter simplified as he focused on timeless and traditional themes derived from antiquity, such as male nudes with horses and women doing their hair. After his return to Paris in the autumn, his paintings of female nudes took on a more monumental and more primitive form: the influence of the archaic Iberian sculptures he had seen in an exhibition in the Louvre was now reflected in the stylised treatment of faces, and became blended with a more pronounced influence from the late figure paintings of Cezanne (1839-1906), and the Tahitian paintings and sculptures of Gauguin (1848-1903). All these sources, together with elements of African art and Oceanic art, coalesced in the extraordinary Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907, Museum of Modern Art, New York). This huge canvas, which occupied Picasso for many months during 1907, was revolutionary in the degree of informal abstraction, but none the less referred to academic traditions of portraying the nude. In a real sense it was his answer to the call for a renewed, anti-academic classicism in art, although its expressionistic, 'Dionysiac' character indicates clearly Picasso's rejection of the generally accepted equation of classicism with 'Apollonian' serenity. See, for example, his later neoclassical work on the Dionysian theme - Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race) (1922) Musee Picasso, Paris.

Influence of Braque

Georges Braque (1882-1963) had been taken to Picasso's studio late in 1907. During the course of the following year the two men saw much of each other, and Braque's assimilation of the conceptual aspects of Cezanne's work affected Picasso, who reduced the confrontational and dramatic tone of the 'negro' paintings which followed Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Paintings such as Three Women (Hermitage Museum, Leningrad), completed after considerable revision in the winter of 1908-9, show the influence of Braque's recent geometrical landscape paintings. Out of their collaboration over the next five years Analytical Cubism emerged. Gradually Picasso became recognised as a leader of Parisian avant-garde art: although, like Braque, he never exhibited in the annual Salons in Paris, he showed his recent Cubist canvases at the Galerie Notre-Dame-des-Champs in May 1910. And, thanks to the network of international contacts of Daniel Kahnweiler, dealer to both Picasso and Braque, their analytical Cubist paintings were included in many important exhibitions abroad. Thus the influence of the style spread rapidly. In 1912 Picasso made his first collages, or constructions, and, in response to Braque's initiative, his first papiers colles. These new methods, which ushered in the 'synthetic' phase of Cubism, resulted in a move away from the abstraction and mysteriousness of their recent 'hermetic' works towards greater legibility and formal clarity.

 

 

Classical Naturalism

When war was declared in August 1914 Picasso was in Avignon. During his five-month stay there his work became extremely varied in style: he produced richly coloured, decorative synthetic Cubist paintings, drawings which with hindsight seem to anticipate his surrealistic works of the late 1920s and 1930s, and some exquisite naturalistic drawings in a style related to that of Ingres. The Painter and his Model (1914, Musee Picasso, Paris) was prophetic of the classicism of his art in the coming years. Two years later he agreed to collaborate with his new friend the poet and critic Jean Cocteau on Parade, an experimental ballet with music by Erik Satie, which Cocteau had devised for Diaghilev. In February 1917 Picasso accompanied Cocteau to Rome, to meet the Ballets Russes and to work on his designs. He remained in Italy for two months, visiting some of the major museums and churches and going to Florence, Naples and Pompeii. This was his first trip to Italy, and it contributed significantly to the resurgence of classicism in his work. Although the sets for Parade and his costumes for the Managers were Cubist in style, the huge drop-curtain, depicting performers backstage, was in a 'baroque' style of naturalism playfully derivative of the art he had seen in Rome and Naples. It also distantly recalled the Harlequin and Saltimbanque paintings of 1905. The first performance of the ballet at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris in May 1917 provoked scandal and controversy, and alerted critics and artists to the changes in Picasso's work.

In Rome Picasso had met Olga Koklova, a ballerina in Diaghilev's company, and in June he followed her to Spain where the Ballets Russes were performing. They remained in Barcelona until November, and Picasso saw much of his old Catalan friends. The classicist aesthetic of Catalan Noucentisme helped to confirm the new tendencies in his art. So also did his contacts with the ballet world and its high-society entourage, for he designed other ballets for Diaghilev over the next few years. In July 1918 Picasso and Olga were married, and spent their honeymoon in Biarritz, where he made many elegant Ingres-like portrait drawings. From this time onwards he usually spent the summer in the south of France, claiming that in this Mediterranean ambience mythological subjects came naturally to him. On his honeymoon Picasso met Paul Rosenberg, who became his dealer, found an apartment for him and Olga next door to his gallery on the rue La Boetie, and organised regular exhibitions of his latest work over the coming years.

Mother and Child Imagery

In February 1921 Olga gave birth to a son, and numerous images of mother and child, in a great variety of classical styles, occupied Picasso for the next couple of years. (See: Large Bather, 1921, Musee de l'Orangerie, Paris.) The family spent the summer of 1921 in a villa at Fontainebleau, and there Picasso painted several monumental neoclassical paintings partly inspired by the Renaissance paintings in the palace. At the same time, however, he completed two large, dazzling synthetic Cubist canvases representing Three Musicians (Museum of Modern Art, New York, and Philadelphia Museum of Art). His ability to work simultaneously in these two apparently antithetical modes caused much controversy, and in an interview given to Marius de Zayas, Picasso commented in some detail on the relationship in his work between mood and subject, and choice of style:

The several manners I have used in my art must not be considered as an evolution, or as steps towards an unknown ideal of painting. All I have ever made was for the present and with the hope that it will always remain in the present. I do not believe that I have used radically different elements in the different manners I have used in painting. If the subjects I have wanted to express have suggested different ways of expression I have never hesitated to adopt them. This does not imply either evolution or progress, but an adaptation of the idea one wants to express and the means to express it. (Quote from "Picasso speaks", The Arts, New York, May 1923.)

NOTE: Picasso's fellow Cubist Fernand Leger (1881-1955) also participated in the Classical "Call to Order", with pictures like: The Mechanic (1920, National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa); Three Women (Le Grand Dejeuner) (1921, MOMA, NY); Nudes against a Red Background (1923, Kunstmuseum, Basel); and his later Two Sisters (1935, Gemaldegalerie SMPK, Berlin). See also the classical motifs and imagery used by Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), in works such as: The Uncertainty of the Poet (1913, Tate Collection, London), The Song of Love (1914, Museum of Modern Art New York) and The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914, Private Collection).

Impact of Surrealism

The year of this interview, 1923, was also the year in which Picasso's friendship with the Surrealist poet and theorist Andre Breton became closer, and in December 1924 Picasso was represented in the first issue of La Revolution Surrealiste with a sheet-metal construction. Although he did not officially join the Surrealism movement, his work was included in the Surrealists' exhibitions and magazines, and from the mid-1920s it showed many signs of his sympathy with their fundamental concerns. His subject matter did not alter radically as a consequence of this new allegiance, but the violent and expressive distortions to which he subjected the human body were limitlessly inventive, and metaphoric allusions and private symbols gave his work a poetic, imaginative and dream-like character. The brashly coloured, wilfully ugly and disturbing, collage-style Three Dancers of 1925 (Tate Collection, London) dramatically registers the new orientation, since the subject and composition - derived directly from the traditional motif of the 'Three Graces' - had been explored in many of his earlier elegant classical drawings of dancers.

Despite appearances, however, the ties with the classical tradition held fast during the late 1920s and 1930s when Picasso was in closest touch with Surrealist artists: many of his most grotesquely distorted figures adopted classical poses, and in the use of line and tonal modelling he pastiched academic techniques. Moreover, some of his contemporary drawings were executed in a pure, linear style derived from the painting of Greek pottery, for it was primarily in his graphic work that his absorption in the idea of the classical world and in classical mythology was expressed. It seems, indeed, that rather than discouraging this dialogue with classicism, the Surrealists' obsession with myth and myth-making stimulated Picasso's increasingly mythic concept of the relationship between the artist and his world, and his special identification with the legendary Minotaur. These concerns were expressed in the etchings he made to illustrate a new edition of Ovid's Metamorphoses (published by Albert Skira in 1931), and came to a climax in the great suite of etchings, executed in 1933-4, on the theme of the sculptor's studio and the loves of the Minotaur, which became part of the renowned 'Vollard Suite'. In 1930 Picasso had bought the Chateau de Boisgeloup, north-west of Paris, and there he was able to install large sculpture studios. The busts and nudes he created in the early 1933s vary greatly in their degree of naturalism, but in all of them he pursued his exploration of the many 'voices' of the classical tradition, without, however, being at any time tempted to work in a straightforward neoclassical manner.

Picasso's Inventive Approach to Classicism

Since the end of the First World War Picasso had been the subject of many critical studies. (The first substantial monograph, by his old friend Maurice Raynal, was published in Munich in 1921 and in Paris the following year.) His consecration as a living great master came in 1932 with the huge retrospective exhibition held in Paris at the Galeries Georges Petit, which afterwards travelled to the Kunsthaus in Zurich. In the same year the first volume of Christian Zervos's catalogue raisonne of the paintings and drawings was published, and in 1933 Bernard Geiser produced a catalogue raisonne of the engravings and lithographs. In 1936, on the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Picasso was elected director of the Prado Museum in Madrid. His opposition to Franco was expressed directly in the suite of satirical etchings, 'The Dream and Lie of Franco', and in metaphorical terms in the great mural, entitled Guernica, which he painted for the Spanish Republican pavilion at the Exposition Internationale of 1937. In Guernica (Prado, Madrid), as in so many of his other most important works of the inter-war years, Picasso's typically free and inventive approach to the classical tradition finds expression once again for although the style is essentially that of synthetic Cubism, the imagery, the composition and even the drawing make use of a variety of classic sources, including paintings of The Massacre of the Innocents by Guido Reni (1575-1642) and Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). The classical tradition remained for him a stimulus and a resource; but his immersion in it never involved uncritical imitation, and his own powers of creativity were never crippled by the weight of its authority.

More About Classicism and Neoclassicism

Classicism and Naturalism in 17th Century Italian Painting (1600-1700)

Neoclassical Painting (c.1750-1860)

Neoclassical Art (Flourished 1770-1830)

Neoclassical Artists (c.1750-1850).

 

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