Mandoline was executed in 1920, during a period when Pablo Picasso was simultaneously alternating between the two prevailing yet paradoxical artistic styles that dominated the post-war avant-garde of Paris: Cubism and Neo-Classicism. With an effortless ease, Picasso switched between these styles, proving his ability at consistently defying expectation and enabling him to maintain his position as one of the foremost leaders of modern art. Throughout 1919 and 1920, Picasso executed a series of small still-life compositions that depict a variety of motifs, of which Mandoline is one of the most striking and abstracted.
Against a background of softly gradated colour, the two-dimensional planes of the interlocking abstracted shapes in Mandoline display Picasso’s mastery of Synthetic Cubism. This form of unified and harmonious Cubism was developed during and after the First World War, in response to the notion of the ‘rappel à l’ordre’ or ‘call to order’; a distinct artistic movement that embodied the aesthetics of Classicism, unity and reconstruction in reaction to the catastrophic chaos and devastation wrought by the war. Reduced to a construction of simplified, geometric elements, Mandoline is the antithesis of the Neo-Classical nudes that Picasso had begun to paint at this time. Just a few months before he executed the present work, Picasso had painted Two Female Nudes (Zervos, vol. IV, no. 56), a work that announced the artist’s figurative Classicism, which he would continue to explore throughout this year and into the next. Looking at Mandoline within this context, it is not only Picasso’s graceful ability to negotiate between Cubism and Neo-Classicism that is exemplified, but his intense exploration into space, mass and form. Working simultaneously in these dual modes of representation, Picasso questioned how reality is perceived and subsequently conveyed onto the canvas. Joseph Palau i Fabre writes of the artist’s stylistic plurality of this period: ‘To say the same thing in different ways, in different styles, became for Picasso the essence of his manner of being, of his process of self-fulfilment’ (J. Palau i Fabre, Picasso: From the Ballets to Drama 1917-1926, London, 2000, p. 154).
Picasso painted Mandoline while holidaying in Juan-les-Pins in the south of France with his new wife and the soon-to-be mother of his first child, the Russian ballet dancer, Olga Khokhlova. This was a period of happiness and contentment for the artist, who was enjoying increasing artistic renown, as well as financial security, due to a contract with Parisian art dealer Paul Rosenberg. Now living in the fashionable rue la Boétie in Paris, Picasso’s days of impoverished bohemianism were behind him, and, as the 1920s progressed, his fame would continue to flourish.