The authenticity of this work has been confirmed by Claude Picasso.
‘I was really under the spell of the circus…sometimes I came three or four nights in one week’
Picasso (Reff Harlequin essay)
‘It was begun late one evening after returning home from the circus with Max Jacob. The clay rapidly took on the appearance of [Picasso’s] friend, but the next day he continued to work on it and only the lower part of the face retained the likeness. The jester's cap was added as the head changed its personality’ (R. Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work, London, 1958, pp. 113-114). So wrote Roland Penrose describing the playful origins of Tête de fou, which was conceived over the course of a few days in 1905 while Pablo Picasso was immersed in the heady, bohemian world of Paris along with his friends, the bande à Picasso as they were known. Inspired by the poet, Max Jacob, who was by all accounts the group’s own entertainer, ‘so spirited and dynamic…Picasso and Guillaume [Apollinaire] could laugh all night long at Max’s improvisations and stories, his songs, and the faces he pulls’, Picasso’s lover of the time, Fernande Olivier recalled, Tête de fou also presents the figure of the jester, one of the leading protagonists of Picasso’s Rose Period (F. Olivier, quoted in M. McCully, Picasso in Paris, 1900-1907, exh. cat., Amsterdam, 2011, p. 177).
The waif-like, whimsical, often melancholy-tinged figures of the harlequin and saltimbanque, as well as jesters, acrobats and clowns had first emerged in Picasso’s art in the early 1900s. Living in the bohemian enclave of Montmartre, Picasso and his coterie of poets and writers were obsessed with the Cirque Médrano, enjoying the host of performers, clowns and harlequins alike that took to this famed stage. Picasso particularly identified with the itinerant commedia dell’arte figure of the harlequin, who, like him, inhabited the margins of society, barely scraping a living through his art. As John Richardson has written, ‘For all their coarseness, [circus performers] struck Picasso as true artists, like himself: wanderers who led a picturesquely marginal existence when they were not, like him, performing feats of prodigious skill’ (J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso, Volume I: 1881-1906, London, 1991, p. 371). As a result, these travelling entertainers served as the embodiment of Picasso’s bohemian life at this time, reflecting ‘the themes of alienation and fraternity, jealousy and love, that haunt [Picasso’s] imagination’ (T. Reff, ‘Harlequins, Saltimbanques, Clowns, and Fools’, Artforum, October 1971, vol. 10, no. 2, p. 32).
With his frontal, somewhat pensive gaze, ever so slightly tilted head and immediately recognisable three-pointed ‘fool’s crown’, Tête de fou belongs to this troupe of harlequins and circus performers that proliferated in Picasso’s Rose period pictures through 1905; a three-dimensional embodiment of this theme. Picasso’s use of sculpture at this time was rare; indeed, he did not have the facilities at the Bateau Lavoir, and so likely modelled this at his friend, the sculptor Paco Durrio’s studio. Clearly reveling in the expressive potential of clay, Picasso has created a richly textured surface which imbues this figure with a sense of emotional depth; a technique that could have been inspired by a large retrospective of Auguste Rodin’s work that was shown at the Musée du Luxembourg in the spring of 1905.