Picasso drew the large pastel Homme et femme on 4 April 1921 in his Paris studio at 23, rue La Boétie. This composition is the only work of this period, thusly titled in the Zervos catalogue, which depicts a nude male and female couple set indoors. While there are some seaside scenes of mixed bathers, Picasso's multi-figure groupings of nudes are nearly all female (e.g., Zervos, vol. 4, no. 202; fig. 1)--with the occasional exception, such as Le Flûte de Pan, in which both figures, albeit not quite naked, are young men (Zervos, vol. 5, no, 141; Musée Picasso, Paris). Picasso's approach to subject and style during his neo-classical phase was to employ two distinctly different pictorial means, normally turning to a heavily classicized manner for the human figure, and a late synthetic cubist mode for the still-life. The present Homme et femme contains aspects of both means, constituting a hybrid of content and style that is virtually unique in his oeuvre during this period.
The choice of a man and a woman together, unclothed, tenderly clasping their hands--an Adam and Eve as it were--may likely have stemmed from events in the lives of both the artist and his wife at this time: a son was born to Pablo and Olga Picasso on 4 February 1921. Picasso, who was approaching his fortieth year, was delighted Olga had given him a son as his first-born, whom they named Paulo, the only male heir on his side of the Ruiz-Picasso family. He has perhaps in Homme et femme depicted Olga in her erstwhile bulgingly pregnant condition, as she would have appeared very early in the year. Tensions developed in their marriage as the decade wore on, and would eventually prove irreconcilable, but in 1921 life--and the state of their union--was good for both husband and wife, now happily parents, and the present Homme et femme may celebrate this moment of domestic harmony and contentment.
Two months after Picasso drew Homme et femme, he produced some of his finest neo-classical pictures, of very large heads and figures, during his summer holiday in Fontainebleau. And at this very same time and place, he completed the two versions of Trois musiciens (Zervos, vol. 4, nos. 331 and 332; the latter, fig. 2); both are supreme masterpieces of later cubism. Having worked for seven years while adhering almost exclusively to his cubist method, Picasso began as early as 1914 to integrate classicized forms into his art. His earliest sustained foray into classicism was a series of Ingresque portrait drawings. In 1917, Picasso made his first realistic figure paintings in more than a decade, a group of portraits depicting his future wife Olga. From 1918 through 1924, Picasso worked simultaneously in two idioms, producing classical and cubist masterpieces side-by-side, prompting accusations from more dogmatic members of the avant-garde that he had taken a reactionary stance and was abandoning modernism. The poet Pierre Reverdy published an article in 1917 in which he declared, "Cubism is an art of creation, not of reproduction or interpretation. No cubist painter should execute a portrait" (quoted in Picasso and Portraiture, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 301). Picasso refuted these charges, proclaiming during an interview in 1923, "If the subjects I have wanted to express have suggested different ways of expression I have never hesitated to adopt them... Different motives inevitably require different means of expression. This idea does not imply either evolution or progress, but an adaptation of the idea one wants to express and the means to express that idea" (quoted in D. Ashton, ed., Picasso on Art, New York, 1972, p. 5).
Picasso's openly inclusive, non-restrictive sensibility was the underlying attitude that informed all manner of his production during the neo-classical period, and indeed would become the guiding principle for the remainder of his career. In the final analysis, there is no great divide in visual aspect that separates the already distorted lines and volumes of Deux baigneuses (fig. 1) from the angularity of the figures and the planar rendering of volume in Homme et femme, a work which is clearly cubist, but in its rigorous, sharply drawn figuration is actually more classical in its discipline than the earlier picture, also a pastel. Both works share what Pierre Daix has characterized in the neo-classical works as "a syntax of extreme foreshortenings, bloatings, disproportions, simplifications, and touches of primitivism" (Picasso: Life and Art, New York, 1993, p. 178).
The act of bringing his classical manner into play did not mean Picasso was retreating into a cul-de-sac of past styles; he was actually expanding the parameters of creative expression for those of his generation who were bold enough to likewise pursue the advantage of his broadly inventive outlook. Michael FitzGerald has explained, "When placed in the context of cultural developments during World War I, Picasso's neoclassicism is better understood as a renewal of the avant-garde. By explicitly embracing history, Picasso escaped the strictures of an increasingly rigid modernism to define a more vital alternative. He repudiated the convention of modernism's ahistoricism in order to acknowledge its maturity, as well as his own, and rejuvenate the avant-garde by immersing it in the rich humanistic traditions that many cubist artists and theorists denied in a search for formal purity" (exh. cat., op. cit., 1996, p. 297).
In addition to referencing Greek and Roman prototypes, Picasso's paintings from the early 1920s also acknowledge the neoclassical tradition in Poussin, Ingres, Puvis de Chavannes, and especially the full-volumed late nudes of Renoir. Of particular significance to Homme et femme was Picasso's interest in the carved stone reliefs of the 16th century Fontainebleau sculptor Jean Goujon (fig. 3), which he had already studied in the Louvre, prior to seeing other works in situ while staying in Fontainebleau during the summer of 1921. Indeed, Homme et femme might have served as a workable idea for a Goujonesque relief. The squarish upper bodies of the man and woman sit flatly against a background that Picasso has ruled with straight lines, while their great limbs, no less flatly treated than the rest of their bodies, nonetheless appear to advance into a forward space, much as Gujon's figures press forward in relief from the plaque on which they are fixed.
Picasso's enlargement of the normal dimensions of limbs, hands and feet, as seen here, is a characteristic frequently encountered in his neo-classical pictures, and was intended to lend a heroic, monumental character to his figures and place these images into vaguely universalized dimensions of time and place. John Richardson has pointed out a pressing interest that also motivated Picasso to create these figural special effects: "The experience of designing theater decors had taught him, among other tricks of the trade, how to gauge effects of scale at varying distances... Picasso now felt ready to tackle subjects far larger than himself. The lure of sculpture, or, rather, the lure of becoming a sculptor should also be taken into account. Since Picasso lacked the requisite facilities--space, equipment, and above all, time--that monumental sculpture requires, he set about doing paintings in a classical vein that would double as conceptual sculptures. To simulate the matte look of stone, he executed his nudes and heroic-sized heads in pastel or sanguine, sometimes on canvas" (Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932, New York, 2007, p. 196).
Picasso in his cubism of the early 1920s sought to realize ideals of formal clarity and economy. Nonetheless, as Elizabeth Cowling has reminded us, "In practice... a Cubist structure was no guarantee of rationality, harmony serenity or order, for Picasso often used the Cubist style for works which are profoundly transgressive or riddled with paradox and ambiguity" (Picasso: Style and Meaning, New York, 2002, p 387). Because of the freedom, versatility and potential that Picasso found in cubism, Cowling declares he "continued to draw upon the basic grammar of Cubism for the rest of his career... he continued to treat Cubism as a living and flexible language capable of saying new and different things" (ibid). The strands of cubism and classicism would continue to run in parallel and in tandem throughout the decades to come. Picasso painted in September 1955 a classicist Bacchanale (Zervos, vol. 16, no. 430), and in early 1956, the cubist Deux femmes sur la plage (Zervos, vol. 17, no. 36; fig. 4).
The early provenance of Homme et femme is thrice distinguished. From the legendary dealer D.-H. Kahnweiler the pastel entered the collection of Gottlieb Friedrich Reber, a German-born textile manufacturer who moved to Switzerland in 1919, settling in Lausanne. He became famous for the remarkable quality of the works by the artists he collected, which he often assembled in large numbers: by 1910, at the age of thirty, he possessed twenty-seven Cézannes. The art historian Carl Einstein is believed to have influenced Reber's decision during the 1920s to modernize his collection by acquiring works of the major cubists, most of which he purchased from Kahnweiler. Reber eventually owned eighty works by Juan Gris, and at least seventy paintings by Picasso--including the Trois Musiciens currently in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (fig. 2)--as well as many more of Picasso's works on paper, including the present pastel. He acquired important works by Braque and Léger. Douglas Cooper, the brilliant expert and writer on cubism, and friend of Picasso, Braque and Léger, met Reber in 1932, as the collector was beginning to sell paintings from his collection to cover losses on the French stock exchange. "And so a young collector who had the means," John Richardson has written, "as well as the courage to live up to his modernist convictions was very welcome" (The Sorcerer's Apprentice: Picasso, Provence and Douglas Cooper, London, 1999, p. 28). Cooper acquired Homme et femme in 1939, as the onset of world war further exacerbated Reber's financial situation.
Pablo and Olga Picasso, Villa des Sables, Juan-les-Pins, 20 July 1920. Photograph from the Igor Stravinsky Collection, Paul Sacher Foundation, Basel.
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Deux baigneuses, Paris, 24 October 1920. Musée Picasso, Paris.
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, Trois Musiciens, Fontainebleau, summer 1921. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
(fig. 3) Jean Goujon, Roman Charity, circa 1550. Musée du Louvre, Paris.
(fig. 4) Pablo Picasso, Deux femmes sur la plage, Cannes, 6 February-26 March, 1956. Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.