Maya Widmaier-Picasso has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Claude Picasso has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
On 19 January 1951, Picasso drew an amusing pencil sketch illustrating the grotesquely beak-nosed figure of a knight in armor and his obese lady friend (Picasso Project, 51-004[a]). During the next several weeks he made more such studies, including the full size sheet on which he drew and painted the present work, Jeux de pages, in pen and India ink on canvas, employing toned grisaille washes in oils as well, which he likely completed in stages during early and mid-February.
The idea of these late medieval characters and their setting seems to have dropped in from out of the blue. Only the day before, on 18 January 1951, the artist completed his most purposefully serious work for public display since the end of the Second World War, a painting decrying an atrocity that had occurred in the war-in-progress half way around the world, Massacre en Corée (Zervos, vol. 15, no. 173; Musée Picasso, Paris). He openly referred to Goya’s El tres de Mayo de 1808, painted in 1815, and Manet’s L’exécution de l’empereur Maximilien, 1868. To ensure his new contemporary history painting would receive the widest possible attention in Paris, Picasso showed Massacre en Corée in the Salon de Mai that year. It was reproduced on the front page of Les Lettres françaises, 10 May 1951.
Massacre en Corée pleased very few, least of all the American government, then in the midst of leading a joint United Nations military campaign to prevent communist North Korea and China from overrunning the pro-Western southern Republic of Korea. The Americans dismissed Picasso’s painting as Soviet and North Korean propaganda. A massacre of North Korean civilians at Sinchon had actually occurred; the perpetrators are today thought to have been South Korean paramilitary units allied to the American forces. (This incident should not to be confused with the killing of South Korean refugees at No Gun Ri, on whom American forces had fired, a matter which was covered up until a U.S. Army investigation in 2001.) The French Communist Party–of which Picasso had been a member since 1944–expressed disappointment, taking its cue from Moscow, by deriding the artist’s depiction of the victims’ passivity as the robotic firing squad was taking aim and about to murder these defenseless women and children.
Picasso’s preoccupation with the menace of militarism, however, continued after he completed Massacre en Corée. He shifted the time frame, however, to the late medieval period and, in contrast to his recent history painting, he took a surprisingly playful and satirical turn as he drew knights in their elaborate armorial fittings, nobly resplendent on horseback, in the company of their pages–the young boys who attended to and assisted them, as they prepared to become squires and eventually knights themselves (Picasso Project, nos. 51-004 [c-e]; Musée Picasso). During these weeks, Picasso also commenced a series of lithographs, in black, pale red and gray, on the subjects of the knight and his page, the play of pages, and the departure, which concludes with the knight taking leave of his fair lady, as he heads out to the jousting field, with his page in attendance (Reusse, nos. 563-585, dated 12 January-27 May 1951). He also created a related collage comprised of an ink drawing and papiers collés on board which served as the cover for a double issue of the review Verve, featuring Picasso at Vallauris, 1949-1951 (Nos. 25/26, Fall 1951).
One of the lithographs, likewise titled Jeux de pages (Reusse, no. 565; dated 19 February 1951), explains what these boys are up to. The pages are having their fun in decking out the manikin of a knight in all the metal paraphernalia they can load onto its frame, with the crowning touch of a jester’s mask to serve as their master’s face. The present drawing on canvas is the final study for the oil painting, also on panel, that Picasso completed on 24 February 1951 (Zervos, vol. 15, no. 184). The technique employed in the present work is unusual in Picasso’s oeuvre; he drew in ink on a primed canvas with portions of the background already washed in using thinned oils, and after laying down the canvas on a wood panel, then heightened and further retouched certain areas with white pigment. The artist perhaps intended here to simulate the effect of having created an al fresco wall painting, in which a 15th century painter would have transferred the cartoon of his subject to the wet plaster–here the primed canvas laid down on panel (to simulate the wall)–and then painted some portion of it before the surface dried.
Picasso would have surely had models in mind for such a procedure, as well as the 15th century subjects he chose to depict. The idea of interpreting the theme of the knight and courtly chivalry may have occurred to him while reading an earlier issue of Verve, which showcased Le Livre des Tournois de René d’Anjou (“The Book of Tourneys of King René of Anjou,” circa 1460-1465; Verve, No. 10, November 1946). This issue included illustrations of illuminated manuscript paintings of jousting knights on horseback, as well as rarely seen preliminary drawings, the very process Picasso would follow in his own series.
Another model, a far more famous antecedent, may well have been Benozzo Gozzoli’s three large wall paintings in the Magi Chapel of the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence (1459-1462). Each of the paintings depicts one of the Magi–Gaspar, Balthasar and Melchior, who journeyed to Bethlehem so that they may do homage to the infant Jesus–with his extensive retinue. Fra Filippo Lippi painted the Adoration of the Christ Child for the chapel’s altarpiece. Picasso’s Jeux de page drawings, prints and final painting appear to have been based on the most striking of the mage processions, that of Balthasar on the south wall of the chapel. Picasso in his versions transformed Balthasar’s elaborate oriental crown into a preposterously cumbersome helmet, and the king’s sumptuously embroidered robe into a profusion of metal parts that comprise the knight’s torso and leg armor. The pages who attend to Balthasar in the chapel painting were once believed to be portraits of the daughters of Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici, Benozzo’s patron. Pages abound in the other two chapel paintings.
The most extraordinary phenomenon in Picasso’s work during early 1951, such as one may witness here and in so many other periods in his career, is his mercuric propensity to move effortlessly from one theme to another, often leaping across great gulfs of time, restlessly traveling from present to past and back again, while being deadly serious one moment, then thoroughly enjoying himself the next, as he goes about inventing his own jeux de pages. Picasso’s next major project was again earnest and most public-minded in tone. In late 1952 he completed the two facing murals comprising La Guerre et La Paix, which were later installed in a deconsecrated chapel in Vallauris, thereafter known as the Temple de la Paix (Zervos, vol. 15, nos. 196 and 197).
[A] Cover for Verve: Picasso at Vallauris, 1949-1951 (Nos. 25/26, Fall 1951).
[B] Benozzo Gozzoli, Procession of the Magus Balthasar, 1459-1461. Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence.
[C] Pablo Picasso, Jeux de pages, 24 February 1951. Musée Picasso, Paris.