Tête et main de femme was painted at Fontainebleau, where Picasso, his wife Olga Khokhlova, and their infant son Paulo spent the summer of 1921. The sojourn at Fontainebleau was extremely fruitful for the artist. He continued his cubist investigations of the previous decade, completing two versions of Trois musicians, both masterpieces of synthetic cubism (Zervos, vol. IV, nos. 331-332). At the same time, he painted a series of massive, neoclassical female figures, including colossal bathers, giant seated nudes, iconic images of mother and child, and the great Femmes à la fontaine (fig. 1). Whether draped or nude, these figures have the sculptural solidity and idealized features of ancient statuary. Their coiffure, parted in the middle and gently waved, is that of classical goddesses, while their crisp brows and heavy lids look as though they were carved from stone. With its massive, sculptural forms and enduring physical presence, Tête et main de femme is an important example from this group of pictures, which the scholar Elizabeth Cowling has called "Picasso's great series of classicizing paintings" (in Picasso: Style and Meaning, London, 2002, p. 409). In its creative and highly personal synthesis of various classicizing strands in the history of art, the painting also exemplifies Picasso's ongoing attempt to define his own position among ancient and modern masters, as well as his broader meditation on the endurance of culture in the post-war period.
Picasso first began to integrate classicizing forms into his art in 1914, after seven years of working in an exclusively cubist mode. His earliest foray into classicism was a series of Ingresque portrait drawings, of which Picasso's dealer Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler later recalled: "He showed me two drawings which were not cubist but classicist: two drawings of a seated man; and he said, 'Better than before, eh?'" (quoted in P. Daix, Picasso: Life and Art, New York, 1993, p. 138). In 1917, Picasso made his first illusionistic oil paintings in more than a decade, a group of portraits depicting his future wife Olga; from 1918 until 1924, he worked simultaneously in two visual idioms, producing classicizing and cubist masterpieces side-by-side. Despite his sustained commitment to cubism, Picasso's burgeoning neoclassical style prompted accusations from more dogmatic members of the avant-garde that he was repudiating modernism. The critic Pierre Reverdy, for example, 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 M. FitzGerald, "The Modernists' Dilemma: Neoclassicism and the Portrayal of Olga Khokhlova," in Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 301). Picasso, in turn, rejected this teleological view of art history, proclaiming in an interview in 1923, "The several manners I have used in my art must not be considered an evolution. If the subjects I have wanted to express have suggested different ways of expression I have never hesitated to adopt them" (quoted in W. Rubin, "Reflections on Picasso and Portraiture," in ibid., p. 40). Elsewhere, Picasso argued that there was no fundamental difference between his various creative modes: "They speak of naturalism in opposition to modern painting. I would like to know if anyone has ever seen a natural work of art" (quoted in E. Cowling, op. cit., p. 362).
Modern scholars, too, have vigorously debated the significance of Picasso's neoclassicism. During the 1920s, classicizing styles became commonplace among Parisian artists such as Braque, Derain, and Léger, as a feature of a general rappel à l'ordre ("recall to order") provoked by the violent upheavals of war. In this context, Picasso's renewed exploration of a representational style has sometimes been considered a retreat from modernism, and it has even been suggested that the artist's move toward legibility was a response to chauvinistic attacks on cubism as a product of German culture. Analysis of Picasso's neoclassicism as part of a conservative post-war movement, however, fails to take into account both his continued exploration of cubism during this period and the fact that his earliest classicizing works actually pre-date the outbreak of hostilities. Offering a more nuanced reading of Picasso's neoclassicism, Michael FitzGerald writes, "Among the many phases of Picasso's work, neoclassicism is perhaps the most controversial, because its stylistic eclecticism and widespread popularity have led some writers to criticize it as a reactionary departure from modernism. When placed in the context of cultural developments during World War I, however, 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" (in op. cit., p. 297).
Indeed, the sources for Picasso's neoclassicism are extraordinarily rich and varied. In 1917, during a trip to Rome to design stage-sets for Diaghilev's ballet Parade, Picasso made excursions to see the ruins of ancient Pompeii, the archaeological collections in Naples, and the work of Raphael and his contemporaries in Florence. The dancer and choreographer Léonce Massine, who accompanied Picasso to Pompeii, later recalled the artist's exhilaration at the site: "Picasso was thrilled by the majestic ruins and climbed endlessly over broken columns to stand staring at fragments of Roman statuary" (quoted in J. Clair, ed., Picasso, 1917-1924: The Italian Journey, exh. cat., Palazzo Grassi, Venice, 1998, pp. 79-80). Likewise, the young Futurist Enrico Prampolini, who met Picasso through Jean Cocteau, recounted "the childlike delight, mingled with calm, reflective pleasure, with which Picasso contemplated the Sistine frescoes and, still more, Raphaels's Stanze and the Vatican museums of sculpture" (quoted in E. Cowling, op. cit., p. 315). Picasso also had the opportunity to study ancient fresco painting during his stay in Italy. A photograph taken by Cocteau at Pompeii shows Picasso pointing to a painting of Bacchus and Silenus, and the Musée Picasso in Paris houses several postcards of Pompeian frescoes that the artist purchased in Naples. The muted, earthy palette of Picasso's paintings from Fontainebleau suggests the tones of ancient fresco; indeed, as late as 1923, when Diaghilev tried to persuade Picasso to restore a mildewed curtain from Parade, he refused on the grounds that "it resembled the deteriorated frescoes of Pompeii and was much better so," as Diaghilev's assistant would later recall (quoted in E. Cowling, op. cit., p. 437).
In addition to referencing Greek and Roman prototypes, Picasso's paintings from the early 1920s also acknowledge the neoclassical tradition of Poussin, Ingres, and Puvis de Chavannes, all of whom were well-represented in the Louvre. Even closer at hand were the voluptuous, classicizing nudes of Renoir, which took center stage at the Galerie Paul Rosenberg, where Picasso began to exhibit in 1919. In his first show at Rosenberg's gallery, Picasso included a drawing titled after Renoir, and he purchased at least seven of Renoir's late nudes, now housed in the Musée Picasso in Paris. Finally, paintings such as the present one hark back to Picasso's own paintings from the summer of 1906 at Gósol, which in turn draw liberally on classical models. Commenting on the range of pictorial and thematic possibilities that he quarried from the history of art during this period, Picasso himself stated, "To me there is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot live always in the present it must not be considered at all. The art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not an art of the past; perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was" (quoted in ibid., p. 362).
In their rich amalgamation of historical sources, paintings such as the present one surpass any conventional definition of portraiture, despite their close resemblance to Picasso's wife Olga. To be sure, it was the figure of Olga that had inspired Picasso in 1917 to make his first oil paintings in the neoclassical mode, and her image continued to permeate his unique brand of classicism for the next six years. In a photograph that Picasso took at Fontainebleau in the summer of 1921, for example, Olga is posed in the midst of a group of five pastel heads related to Femmes à la fontaine, all of which share her crisply defined features, parted and waved coiffure, and air of poise and reserve (fig. 2). Nonetheless, in paintings like the present one, the image of Olga is idealized and ennobled, mediated through the lens of history (just as at Gósol, Fernande Olivier had been recreated in a panoply of guises culled from antiquity through the nineteenth century). As Robert Rosenblum has explained, "Predictably, Picasso's backward evolution to the pure and vigorous origins of classical art has a more personal inflection than that of his contemporaries; and his familiar quotations from ideal beauty are imbued with a quivering physical and psychological life that reflects his mysterious, Pygmalion-like power as their creator" (in Picasso: The Early Years, 1892-1906, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1997, p. 270).
A noteworthy feature of the present composition is the odd disjunction between the head of the woman and the hand that stretches toward her face. Indeed, it is not clear whether the hand is that of the woman herself, or whether it belongs to another figure, perhaps an infant in his mother's lap. Both of these scenarios have compositional parallels in Picasso's work of this period. During the summer of 1921, inspired by the birth of his son Paulo, Picasso painted several canvases that depict a classicizing matron draped in antique fashion, her infant son reaching toward her with pudgy hands (fig. 3). Likewise, in two monumental compositions from 1920, Picasso depicts a female figure with her head resting in her hand, suggesting either introspection or grief. The earlier of these is a portrait of Olga from the summer, which shows her seated in an armchair reading a book, clad in a white dressing gown and slippers (Zervos, vol. IV, no. 180). In the second version, painted in November, Picasso has obliterated the domestic narrative and replaced Olga with a generalized, neoclassical type, but has retained the distinctive head-in-hand pose (fig. 4). The same gesture also appears in two of Picasso's most significant canvases of 1921: a painting of two female nudes from early in the year (Z., vol. IV, no. 217), and Femmes à la fontaine from the summer at Fontainebleau (fig. 1).
The motif of the head in the hand has ample precedent in the history of art. Mourning women in Attic grave stelae from the fourth century BC are frequently shown with one hand raised toward the chin (fig. 5), a posture that finds numerous echoes in neoclassical art from Poussin through Maillol. Picasso's particular interpretation of the gesture, particularly in the portrait of Olga reading, is also closely related to a depiction of the classical goddess of Arcadia in a Roman fresco from Herculaneum that the artist studied at the museum in Naples in 1917. The same fresco, notably, has been proposed as a source for one of Ingres' best-known late portraits, Madame Moitessier (National Gallery, London). Commenting on the paintings by Picasso that employ this pose, Cowling has written, "The muffled echoes of works of art dating from several hundred years BC to the relatively recent past make the image of the woman seem to pull slowly backwards in time from a vaguely defined modernity to a vaguely defined antiquity, without ever becoming fixed at any particular moment in history. In alliance with the head-in-hand, reflecting-remembering pose, the temporal vagueness focuses attention on the inexorable passage of time, on the ceaseless transfer of present into past tense, and the generalized references to classicism function as ciphers both for the past as such and for the continuum of cultural history" (in op. cit., p. 414).
In addition to looking backward for inspiration in pictures like the present one, Picasso may also have had in mind a more immediate source: the repertory of classicizing female deities who represented the French nation in popular patriotic imagery during the wartime and post-war years. Although Picasso's classical matrons are far too generalized to function as explicit allegories, they nonetheless offer an evocative counterpoint to the ubiquitous Victories,Glories, and Patries of the popular press. Kenneth Silver has written, "Just as the French nation during the war turned to l'histoire--in its dual aspect of history and 'story' or myth--for moral support, so Picasso creates a mythic antique world that nonetheless has the weight and reassuring gravity of truth" (in Esprit de Corps: The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War, 1914-1925, Princeton, 1989, p. 278). In light of post-war realities, however, Picasso's evocation of the classical past might also have had a more melancholy aspect. Cowling concludes:
"The references to antique sculpture in these paintings take on a particular meaning in the context of mourning, for a sense of loss and ruin is inextricable from the sense of admiration provoked by the sight of the fragmentary evidence of great civilizations of the past. Picasso visited Rome, Pompeii and Herculaneum in the middle of the war--a war which left historic French buildings severely damaged, the French landscape literally devastated, above all innumerable soldiers hideously maimed. The spectacle of great ruined cities and buildings and butchered sculpted bodies must have had a special poignancy under such circumstances, and in the immediate aftermath of war the galleries of antiquities in the Louvre and the British Museum must have seemed more than ever like vast mausolea" (in op. cit., p. 429).
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Femmes à la fontaine, 1921. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Barcode 23669482
(fig. 2) Olga Picasso in Picasso's studio at Fontainebleau, summer 1921. Barcode 23669505
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Mère et enfant, 1921. Private collection. Barcode 23669499
(fig. 4) Pablo Picasso, Femme assise, 1920. Musée Picasso, Paris. Barcode 23669529
(fig. 5) Attic grave stelae of a woman with her servant, 4th century BC. National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Barcode 23669512