‘I attempt to observe nature, always. I am intent on resemblance more real than the real, attaining the surreal. It was in this way that I thought of Surrealism’ -Pablo Picasso, quoted in J. Golding, 'Picasso and Surrealism' in R. Penrose & J. Golding, eds., Picasso in Retrospect, New York, 1973, p. 77.
‘I have an absolute passion for bones...modelled, not just chipped out… On any piece of bone at all, I always find the fingerprints of the god who amused himself with shaping it...the convex and concave forms of bones fit into each other...artfully [and] are “adjusted” to each other.’ -Pablo Picasso, quoted in Brassai, Picasso and Company, New York, p. 74.
‘A painter has to observe nature, but must never confuse it with painting. It can be translated into painting only with signs. But you do not invent a sign. You must aim hard at likeness to get to the sign. For me, surreality is simply that, and has never been anything else.’ -Pablo Picasso, quoted in Brassai, Conversations with Picasso, Chicago, 1999, p. 222.
Figure of 1930 is one of a rare and outstanding series of oil paintings depicting totemic, monumental, and often aggressive-looking female figures towering against a pale blue sky, which Pablo Picasso painted during what has come to be known as his ‘bone-period’ of the late 1920s and early 1930s. This ‘bone-period’ is so-called because of Picasso’s predilection at this time for creating surprising, highly sculptural, skeletal-like figures, all seemingly constructed out of bone-like forms. Occurring at a time when Picasso’s art was also informed by the then prevailing culture of Surrealism, these paintings fused the artist’s recently-acquired sculptural ambitions and his long-standing admiration for African and Oceanic sculpture (also a centre of Surrealist focus at this time), with the schizophrenia of his personal life. Picasso was emotionally torn during this period between the joys of his burgeoning affair with the young Marie-Thérèse Walter and a growing animosity towards his wife Olga. The result of this volatile mix of emotion and influence was the creation of a series of works that rank among the artist’s most visionary, inventive and disturbing pictorial creations.
Towards the end of 1929 Picasso’s work went through a transformation working in close collaboration with Julio González on the creation of a radically inventive series of iron sculptures. Among these were the monumental work Femme au Jardin intended as a memorial to Guillaume Apollinaire and the brooding constructed-iron figure known as Tête de femme. In the immediate aftermath of making these sculptures, Picasso began work on a large and important painting that put into pictorial practice much that he had learned with González. This was his famous painting Baigneuse now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which Picasso completed in January 1930. This ‘seated bather’ presented the image of a large iron-like female figure in the form of a cage-like construction of disparate forms. While the body of the figure echoed, in some respects the iron construction of Picasso’s Femme au Jardin, its head and aggressive mouth full of teeth resembled the mandibles of a praying mantis.
The predatory image of the mantis – a creature where the female is known to devour the male after mating by biting its head off – was a favourite motif and talking point of the Surrealists at this time; many of whom kept some of these insects as pets in the hope of witnessing the animals taking part in this savage act. Picasso, who knew well of this Surrealist fascination with the mantis, was, however, later to admit to William Rubin, that the female figure depicted in Baigneuse was a clandestine portrait of his wife Olga. As well as perhaps offering a nod to Surrealism, therefore, it is one of an increasing savage series of portraits of his wife that Picasso was to paint during this period.
Painted soon after Baigneuse in early February 1930, Figure, is one of a group of smaller-scale oil paintings, made on wooden panels, made in direct response to the MoMA painting and as a development from it. In this series of paintings Picasso explored many of the same motifs, especially the all-devouring mandibles, by rendering the female figure as a series of bone-like constructions that appear to tower against the open sky. This transformation of the female figure into a giant monument, may have its roots in Picasso’s ongoing preoccupation with creating a monument to Apollinaire which, in the form of Femme au Jardin had also taken on the form of a woman intermingled with organic, constructed iron forms. On the other hand, the fusion of female figure and architecture was also a strong characteristic of many of Picasso’s depictions of female bathers and bathing huts from the beach at Dinard. And many of these paintings, which were often clandestine images of Marie-Thérèse with a key, had morphed themselves, in other paintings, into grotesque portraits of a screaming Olga also mutating and becoming architecture.
The series of monumental females to which Figure belongs were all painted on wooden panels because Picasso was evidently in search of a particular sharpness of delineation and a sculptural hardness of form, that he found could not be achieved on canvas. The firm support and grain of these panels also helped to emphasise the bone-like quality of the shapes out of which these monstrous constructions appeared to have been made. As Picasso was later to tell his friend Brassaï, ‘I have an absolute passion for bones,’ adding that he saw bones as forms that appeared to have been ‘modelled, not just chipped out… On any piece of bone at all, I always find the fingerprints of the god who amused himself with shaping it,’ noting also that, ‘the convex and concave forms of bones fit into each other...artfully [and] are “adjusted” to each other’ (Picasso quoted in Brassaï Picasso and Company, New York, p. 74).
John Richardson has pointed out in his multi-volume biography of the artist that Picasso was also inspired by the strange and wonderful structures that bones made in their support of the body, in the form of skeletons and also in such things as the diagrams of bones and internal organs that he knew by the sixteenth century anatomist Andreas Vesalius. Talking with André Malraux later in life about a bat’s skeleton he owned for instance, Picasso indicated to Malraux that, not only was it a beautiful structure, but that it was also, he had come to realise, a ‘fantastic crucifixion’ (Picasso, quoted in J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso, vol. III, London, 2007, p. 392).
Picasso’s interest in bones, structures and figures in 1930 evidently also led the artist to consider taking on this great religious subject at the same time that he was experimenting with the bone-like figures of paintings such as Figure. Alongside paintings such as Figure, Picasso began a series of works on the theme of what he once declared to be ‘the greatest subject in art’: the Crucifixion. (Pablo Picasso, quoted in ibid, p. 395). The series of heads painted on wooden panels to which Figure belongs (Zervos VII, nos. 298- 305) may all also relate to this project, for in Picasso’s resultant painting of the Crucifixion of 1930 (now in Musée Picasso in Paris), a crouching figure set at the base of the cross echoes directly that of the monument-figure in Figure.
What is also interesting to note in this respect about Figure is that it was just these distorted and sculptural-looking figures made by Picasso in the late 1920s and early 1930s that were to prove so influential upon artists like Henry Moore and Francis Bacon. While Picasso’s ‘bone-period’ figures would directly inspire many of Moore’s pioneering sculptures of the 1930s, it was paintings like Figure which Picasso used for a figure at the base of his 1930 painting of a Crucifixion that were ultimately also to lead to Bacon’s first masterpiece, his own, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion of 1944.