"Let go of everything!" the writer André Breton counseled the gathering surrealist circle in 1924. "Let go of hope and fear. Set out on the roads" (in Oeuvres completes, Paris, 1988, p. 263). Breton's invitation to liberate oneself from the habitudes of bourgeois life may have struck a chord in Picasso, at a time when his marriage to the dancer Olga Khoklova was unraveling and he was beginning to extricate himself from the jaded, haute-bourgeois milieu of the Ballets Russes. Picasso put his neo-classicist manner on hold as he experimented with surrealist-inflected figuration during the summer of 1925; La Danse (Zervos, vol. 5, no. 426; Tate Gallery, London), the convulsive, proto-surrealist antithesis of his recent neo-classicist past, proved to be his seminal work of that year. Only a few months before, Picasso had been cycling through his dominant style of the early twenties, for as he entered this increasingly turbulent and transitional phase, Neo-classicism continued to evoke associations of the happier domesticity he had enjoyed during the initial years of his marriage.
Picasso's first child, his son Paulo, was born in 1921. Now, four years later, two paintings stand out that bear witness to Picasso's continued paternal devotion: Le fils de l'artiste en Pierrot (Zervos, vol. 5, no. 374; Musée Picasso, Paris), which shows Paulo aged four, and the present Mère et enfant, which travels back in time to the boy's infancy (fig. 1). As Elizabeth Cowling has observed, the birth of Paulo led to "the inception of a series on the theme of maternity, and almost from the start Picasso treated the image of mother and child in classicizing terms, transforming Olga, who was neither robust nor matronly in reality, into the type of the stately Earth Goddess and Paulo into the type of the plump, vigorously healthy, infant god" (in Picasso: Style and Meaning, New York, 2002, p. 423). Elsewhere Cowling has written, "[Picasso] employed the language of classicism to objectify the private subject and to confer on it an austere, iconic dignity" (in On Classic Ground, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1990, p. 214). In the present painting, Picasso has sensitively interpreted a conventional gesture of maternal tenderness. The encircling, protective arms of the mother support the child, while her fingers gently clasp his hands, strengthening a bond in which the value of young life is cherished and watchfully nurtured under the mother's steadfast care.
"The schematization of form and gesture" in Picasso's numerous mother-and-child pictures of the early 1920s "bestows a quality of the archetypal, as if this were Everymother and Everychild," Kenneth Silver has remarked. "If such a description seems to suggest larger social issues--for instance, that of Marianne's steadfast care for her enfants during the four long years of war--it is not by chance" (in Esprit de Corps: The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War, Princeton, 1989, p. 280). Picasso's classicized maternité paintings are not merely a private record of his own newborn child, but convey a universal sense of noble humanity, a key theme in the "call to order," the clarion call that rang out in the arts in the wake of the First World War. Manifesting the virtues of fecundité so meaningful to the French public in the post-war period, the ruddy-cheeked Mère et enfant paintings project an affirmative image of renewed, hopeful life and peaceful domesticity.
(fig. 1) Paulo with his mother, Olga, 1922. BARCODE 24409544