Buste et Barque is a fascinating reflection on creativity and identity, enriched by autobiographical allusions. It also testifies to Picasso’s prodigious talent as a draughtsman and his inventiveness with a variety of media. A desolate beach scene complete with two small dinghies is sparsely rendered using meandering pen strokes and muted washes of pigment. Placed on a tall pedestal, the sculpted head, classically-styled and exuberantly bearded, is a lonely but commanding presence. It dominates the composition despite its offset position, and appears to brim with energy thanks to the expressive, tapered lines which variously cut through and fade behind layers of chalky watercolour. The melancholy feeling of the work is tempered by its humour, derived from the hubris of placing a monument to the artist where it will eventually be washed away.
Picasso executed the present work in the summer of 1933, while holidaying with his wife Olga and son Paulo in Cannes, a trip marred by marital strife and revelations of Picasso’s infidelity. In the preceding months Picasso had been hard at work on La Suite Vollard. The present watercolour is intimately related to this group of etchings, which he would continue to work on until 1937. Common to both is an autobiographical preoccupation with the artist, his work, the studio and the model, a theme he first adopted in 1928, and would continue exploring until his death in 1973. The huge sculpted head of the present work often features in the suite, where it sits alongside a similarly hirsute sculptor, becoming in effect an image of Picasso himself. In the etchings, Picasso’s mistress and muse Marie-Thérèse (the subject of several iconic individual portraits executed at Boisgeloup the previous year) is a fixture. In La Suite Vollard, she is notable by her absence, making the head’s isolation absolute. Apart from the seafront setting there is little here to suggest the sun-soaked glamour of the Côte d'Azur; the work instead reads as a meditation on Picasso’s separation from Marie-Thérèse (who remained in Paris), and his rapidly deteriorating relationship with Olga. In other works on paper executed during the holiday, escape is instead achieved through surrealism, with Picasso conjuring surreal Mediterranean landscapes in which Marie-Thérèse looms larger than life.
The present work is offered with a distinguished provenance, having previously been in the private collection of Picasso’s primary dealer, Paul Rosenberg, through the 1930s. It was later acquired by Heinz Berggruen, who in turn sold it to the family of the present owner in 1957.
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).