From July to September in 1921, Picasso rented a villa for himself, his Russian ballerina wife Olga Khokhlova, and their five-month-old son Paul Joseph (“Paolo”) in the charming village Fontainebleau, about 35 miles from Paris, best known for its glorious, eclectic château, dating back to the 12th century. In the adjacent garage, fitted out as a studio, Picasso created four gigantic masterpieces: Three Musicians (two versions painted simultaneously) and Three Women at the Spring (two versions, one painting and one red-chalk drawing). These 6-foot works towered over 5 foot-4 inch Picasso in this narrow space, generating an enigmatic puzzle for future Picasso scholars: What can we glean from Picasso’s eclecticism during this summer in Fontainebleau?
Willing to take on the challenge and contribution to Picasso
1973-2023: The Fiftieth Anniversary, New York’s Museum of Modern
Art brought these four significant works together for the first time since they
left Picasso’s Fontainebleau studio in 1921. Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller
Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture Anne Umland and her assistants
Alexandra Morrison and Francesca Ferrari examined the works diligently, and
then had them installed with other Picasso works completed at the same time in
order to study this pivotal period in this artist’s very long and
extraordinarily productive career. Their
query is: What was Picasso thinking? We have, on the one hand, his late Cubist style for Three Musicians and, on the other, his “Ingres-esque” classical style for the Three Women at a Spring. What
should we take away from this disparate combination?
First, let’s consider the brilliant exhibition Picasso in
Fontainebleau. We enter into a huge gallery where we see numerous works of
art produced within the few years leading up to the summer of 1921. Several come from the Museum of
Modern Art’s collection, owner of Picasso’s greatest creations, most
Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Then we walk through a small, narrow gallery that features ghostly reproductions
painted on the walls giving us a feeling for the dimensions inside Picasso’s
studio-garage, 20 x 10 feet. From there we emerge into a very large gallery which displays
the two versions of the late Cubist Three Musicians (from MoMA and
from the Philadelphia Museum of Art), facing each other on opposite walls, and
the two versions of his classical Three Women at the Spring, which
face each other as well. The
musicians are male and the women at the spring are – well, you know.
It’s an intriguing ensemble of characters. The musicians seem lighthearted as they entertain us with their silent concerts. They belong to the traveling burlesque Commedia dell’Art tradition, dating back to the Italian Renaissance. Their masked faces peep out at us, eager to attract our attention. Their bodies are flat interlocking planes of solid colors: bright white, orangy red, pale green, dark blues, gray, and light brown hues against a chocolate brown background in the New York version and grassy patterned green background in the Philadelphia version. All six figures seem to exude a bit of rambunctiousness. The push-pull of the colors that share parts of their interconnected bodies produces a rhythmic quality. These guys are rockin’. The Pierrots are tooting away on clarinets or Spanish tenoras. The New York Harlequin strums a guitar, while the New York monk sings. The Philadelphia Harlequin pauses from fiddling his violin, bow in his left hand, as his neighbor, the other monk, holds his cup in his right hand and the concertina on his lap with the left. In this MoMA room they are showing off their manly skills to impress six scantily-dress ladies preoccupied with drawing water from a spout.
None of the Women seem to be listening to these hardworking
Musicians. They are lost in conversation, too absorbed in their task and
themselves to pay attention to anyone else, including us, their audience. In comparison to Three Musicians,
Picasso’s Three Women at a Spring imposes a somber note among the jazzy
razzle-dazzle of their male companions. Quiet
and contained within their earthy umber background, these colossal bodies, dressed in
grayish-white chitons, seem more like 5th century BC Greek columns
than lithe ancient Greek sculptures from the same era. They are zoftig and majestic, similar to figures in
17th century French Classicist Nicolas Poussin’s Et in Arcadia
Ego, which Picasso must have studied in the Louvre. Picasso’s 20th century version of classical
female figures whisper while their male counterparts, six Musicians in this gallery, bray. The women own their space with timeless,
monumental stability: salt of the earth, instead of fearsome femme fatales. The musicians seem to represent an ephemeral reality, the fairytale land of theatrical performance.
In short, we register an agon here between the flimsy “cubiçant” guys and the substantial “classical” gals reunited in this physical space but perpetually at odds with each other psychologically as they act out two different modes of human interaction. They're Picasso's Kens and Barbies - the Great Divide between the sexes. Nothing has changed since these huge canvases left Picasso’s Fontainebleau garage over a century ago. The four groups of only men or women still huddle on the sidelines during this Big Dance of life.
Also, these works offer some insight into Picasso’s incipient midlife
crisis, caught between his old bohemian life with his Montmartre bodies and his
new embourgeoisement with demanding wife Olga and irresistibly adorable Paolo. The
late great art historian Theodore Reff interpreted the tres amigos
as a wistful backward glance toward Picasso’s early days in Paris when
Picasso’s Gang met every day in Montmartre or Montparnasse. This analysis
sounds quite convincing since Picasso would turn 40 in October, a significant
age for most, usually a time to reevaluate past accomplishments and worry about
the ultimate retirement in the not-too-distant future. Death, by the way, is definitely present in Three
Musicians. Here’s the scoop on that
Installation view of Picasso in Fontainebleau, Museum of
Modern Art, New York, October 8, 2023-February 17, 2024. Photo: Jonanthan
In both versions of Three Musicians we see Harlequin (a ne’er do well ladies man), Pierrot (a sad-sack clown), and a monk. Theodore Reff believed each character alluded to Picasso and two members of his famous entourage: Picasso as his alter-ego Harlequin, the poet/novelist/critic Guillaume Apollinaire as Pierrot, and poet/critic/artist Max Jacob as the monk. In the MoMA version we see parts of a dog under Pierrot’s chair on the extreme left. This Anubis-like creature symbolizes death. Apollinaire died from “Spanish Flu” on November 9, 1918. That summer of 1921, Max Jacob retreated to a Benedictine monastery in St. Benoit-sur-Loire, hence the brown triangle (“hood”) atop a brown rectangle with depicted rope belt in the Philadelphia version and without a belt in the MoMA version.
Installation view of Picasso in Fontainebleau, Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 8, 2023-February 17, 2024. Photo: Jonanthan Dorato.
Other things to notice: Pierrot wears his signature white clown
outfit and Harlequin wears his signature diamond pattern jumpsuit.
Significantly, the colors for this Harlequin’s pattern are red, black, and
green, the colors of the Spanish flag, which reference Picasso’s nationality. Also
in both works the figures wear masks and the clothes are reminiscence of
the costumes and sets Picasso designed for the Ballets
Russe production of Pulcinello
in 1920. We imagine these figures are performing on stage as we stand in the
front row. We also notice that in the
Philadelphia version Pierrot’s clarinet contains a human profile, perhaps a
direct reference to Apollinaire.
Annie Cohen-Solal’s book and exhibition A
Foreigner Called Picasso points
out that Picasso’s identification with Harlequin references his sense of
alienation. Harlequin is a stock character in Commedia dell’Arte, whose antics
come from the position of an outsider, perhaps a drifter. He causes trouble
with his mischievous schemes. He may be The
Fool in the Tarot
card deck. His character seduces Pierrot’s wife, Columbina, behind
Pierrot’s back, which adds sexiness to Harlequin’s attributes, and melancholy
to Pierrot’s. No doubt Picasso identified with this flattering aspect of
Harlequin, the irrepressible tombeur (ladies’ man).
Installation view of Picasso in Fontainebleau, Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 8, 2023-February 17, 2024. Photo: Jonanthan Dorato
Picasso’s late Cubist vocabulary continues the artist’s
collage aided planar vocabulary developed during the so-called Synthetic Period
of Cubism (1912-14) and connects these paintings to his studio in the Bateau
Lavoir, where he created his harlequin paintings during his Rose Period
(1905-1906) and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907, the masterpiece that
introduced his future Cubist planarity, passage, and geometricity. From my perspective, Three Musicians,
painted together in one studio, might represent his Parisian tertulia, who shared
his jokes and pranks, which he performed in his Synthetic Cubist’ collages.
These visual and linguistic puns were decoded for us in Elizabeth Cowling and
Emily Braun’s illuminating exhibition Cubism and
the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, another
contribution to the Picasso 1973-2023: Fiftieth Anniversary celebration.
Three Women at the Spring, on the other hand,
continues Picasso’s neoclassical “Ingres Period” with its emphasis on
sculptural expression. This exploration of volumetric forms seems to chisel out
the face, body, massive hands, columnar pleats, and blocks of stone arranged
around the standing and sitting figures. We can see the same classical
robustness in Picasso’s Studies (1920-1922) and other portraits of his
ballerina wife Olga Khoklova, whom he married on July 12, 1918.
Picasso’s pivot to a mannered classicism began in 1914 with
his unfinished (?) painting, The Painter
and the Model. The following year he delicately drew in pencil several
Ingres-esque portraits of his friends and dealers, including Apollinaire and
Max Jacob. He hadn’t abandoned Cubism, he simply added to his arsenal of visual
expressions that seemed appropriate for his state of mind and spirit (son
esprit). In 1915, his eerily smiling
also in MoMA’s collection and included in this exhibition, seems to mark his
transition from a life with his beloved Eva Gouel (his muse during the Cubist
years) and without. She died in December 1915. This period of her illness
(cancer or tuberculosis) caused this normally resilient artist much anxiety (described
his letter to Gertrude
Stein at the time).
In a 1923 interview Picasso explained: “If an artist varies
his mode of expression this only means that he has changed his manner of
thinking, and in changing, it might be for the better or for the worse. The
several manners I have used in my art must not be considered an evolution, or
as steps toward an unknown ideal of painting.
All I have ever made was made for the present and with the hope that it
always remains in the present.” (Picasso
on Art, edited by Dore Ashton, Da Capo Press, 1972, p. 5)
Anne Umland observed: “these four imposing works lie at the heart of , which delves into a strikingly contradiction-filled moment when Picasso seemed intent on demonstrating how in his art, and in his conception of the tradition of painting more broadly, classicism and cubism, the academy and the avant-garde, the historical past and the contemporary present, were dialectically related and inexorably linked.”
This phrase “dialectically related and inexorably linked” holds the key to our appreciation of this extraordinary artistic endeavor. Rarely, if ever, do we see an artist work simultaneously in two distinctly different and contradictory styles, one flat and the other in illusory three-dimensions. Picasso clearly mastered each style at this point in his career but had also reached a crossroads that needed processing before achieving some resolution. When Marie-Thérèse Walter entered his life in January 1927, Picasso seemed to have found his synthesis, allegedly motivated by this blonde, athletic teenager. That may or may not be true, but we can’t help notice Picasso changed his style and dog (according to Dora Maar) every time he changed his mistress. The next Picasso period blends his Cubist criteria with his curvaceous figurative classicism to form his signature “Surrealist” style, perhaps his most iconic visual expression when we think of the word “Picasso” as a noun, an adjective, and a brand.
The conundrum of Picasso’s four Fontainebleau
masterpieces created side-by-side in his modest garage-studio may have met its
match in MoMA’s ambitious exhibition. Or,
it may remain elusive, as much of Picasso’s work continues to be. Although fifty
years have passed since Picasso’s death on April 8, 1973 and 122 years have passed
since Picasso’s first exhibition at Ambroise Vollard’s gallery on the rue Lafitte
in June 1901, the protean complexity of Picasso never ceases to challenge
and amaze. He was, and remains, one of
greatest artists who graced this planet. And we have not heard the last word on his
Fontainebleau period, nor any other period, guaranteed.
For more information about MoMA’s Three
Women at a Spring, please watch this video, and their Three Musicians, please watch this video. Both videos recount
the histories of paintings as physical objects. Fascinating!
The catalogue for Picasso in Fontainebleau, featuring 15 essays, 239 color illustrations is available through MoMA and other booksellers online.