Femme assise dans un fauteuil provides an extraordinary demonstration of the contrasts in style and technique that Picasso practiced as he moved between his neo-classical and cubist approaches to painting during the years following the First World War, in this rare instance focusing on an identical subject. Completed in 1920, this synthetic cubist figure composition has a neo-classical counterpart—a “sister” painting—in a naturalistic depiction of the very same sitter, the artist’s wife: this is Picasso’s famously exquisite Portrait d’Olga dans un fauteuil, which he painted in Montrouge during the winter of 1917-1918 (Zervos, vol. 3, no. 83).
During the years immediately following the First World War, Picasso often chose to treat still-life subjects in his later synthetic cubist idiom, in compositions typically constructed from flat areas of color superimposed one upon another, as in a collage of cut papers, the technique from which this mode of cubism evolved during 1912-1914. There are, however, fewer portraits and figure paintings in this vein, since Picasso normally preferred to employ for these subjects the neo-classical manner of naturalistic representation which had inspired his return to figuration during the war years.
Picasso’s dedication to the invention of forms, however, his appreciation of the architectonic element in composition—indeed, his passion to create art in its purest state—remained unflagging. Always alert to intuit the possibility of new conceptions of cubism, he was quick to exploit and extend such further developments. While his idea of painting incorporated various kinds of expression and manifested outwardly differing styles, “cubism in Picasso’s eyes was the true grammar of modern art,” as Elizabeth Cowling has reminded us (Picasso: Style and Meaning, London, 2002, p. 386). The present Femme assise dans un fauteuil—in its own cubist terms, in an abstracted, schematic, modernist manner—displays a formal grandeur and beauty that is as finely balanced, fully integrated and finished as any of Picasso’s classical compositions; while not “neo-classical” in style, it is nonetheless “classical” as a calculated arrangement of composed, invented forms.
According to John Richardson, Picasso commenced his naturalistic portrait of Olga Khokhlova after Christmas 1917, their first together, to celebrate their recent engagement (A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932, New York, 2007, p. 75). Until recently Olga had been a dancer in Serge Diaghilev’s Les Ballets Russes; Picasso had been courting her since they met in Rome earlier that year while the artist was working on the cubist costumes and sets for Diaghilev’s production of the ballet La Parade. For the past several years Picasso had been emulating in his work the precise linearity he admired in the draughtsmanship of J.-A.-D. Ingres, the paragon of 19th century French classicism. He elected to paint the portrait of his fiancée “in the flattering, academic style she favored,” Richardson stated, “Ingresque in pose, concept, and handling” (ibid., p 76).
In addition to working directly before his sitter, Picasso referred to photographs that he and his friend Émile Délétang had taken of Olga in the studio. To avoid the overwhelmingly detailed effect of a vintage Ingres portrait, and the old-fashioned formality of salon finish, Picasso merely suggested the background in a few brushstrokes at the left and right edges, as if the painting were still in progress. While working on the likeness of Olga’s delicate features, Picasso also painted a cubist self-portrait of himself in Arlequin au violon (“Si te veux”), subtitled for a popular song, “If you want to make me happy...give me your heart” (Zervos, vol. 3, no. 160).
Zervos records the cubist Femme assise dans un fauteuil as “commencé à Montrouge en 1917, terminé à Paris en 1920” (C. Zervos, op. cit., 1951). The dimensions of this canvas and the Ingresque portrait of Olga are virtually identical; it appears that Picasso began both his cubist and classical versions of Olga seated in a chair around the same time—or the cubist rendering more likely on the heels of the classical portrait–and perhaps alongside Arlequin au violon (“Si tu veux”) as well.
The translation of pictorial elements from classical to cubist, in Olga’s pose and the placement of her sash and fan, are analogous, but not precise. “Photographs were needed,” Richardson has written, “because Diaghilev had summoned Olga to Madrid in the hope of persuading her to dance once again for the company” (ibid.). One may imagine Picasso turning to the present Femme assise while she was away, relying on the photographs. Indeed, in the cubist version the artist recast Olga’s black voile dress, which he had purchased in Barcelona as a gift for her, as a black and green striped garment he derived from the wallpaper pattern seen behind her in the photograph.
Picasso’s cubist makeover of Olga’s portrait proceeded by stages–the paint surface shows evidence of such reworking–ultimately taking two years or more to complete. This canvas may have served along the way as a testing ground for the artist’s ongoing refinements of cubist practice. By 1920, everything had fallen into place. With the contours of each color segment firmly fixed within a network of black-and-white lines, the composition is absolutely clear, like a stained-glass window, and complete in every respect, with not one element too many, nor one too few. The critic Raynal labelled the work of Picasso in this phase as “crystal cubism.” Picasso had evolved an impressive degree of pictorial consistency, whether his subject is a figure or a still-life; compare Table, guitare, bouteille, 1919 (Zervos, vol. 3, no. 437). This is the grammar of late cubism functioning in all its Latinate clarity, always allowing the viewer to perceive and appreciate the respective qualities of the artist’s subject.
Pursuing a method that cannot be traced to any precedent in his earlier career, Picasso during the late ‘teens and early twenties pulled off the feat of travelling two distinct stylistic avenues in his painting, choosing the route as it suited his purpose at that moment, each effort resulting in a manner not outwardly similar nor even related to the other, except by way of contrast. Between these two approaches Picasso surveyed and staked out the antipodes of pictorial representation as they existed in modern Parisian painting at that time. “Picasso’s thirst for new creative adventures was a principal motivation,” Cowling stated. “He was particularly prone to favor the unpredictability of frequent change” (op. cit., 2002, p. 392).
The more recent tendency in this period of Picasso’s production was named for the figures he painted and drew in a “neo-classical” manner, having studied models from antiquity, the masterworks of the Renaissance and Baroque eras, and leaned discerningly on the classicism of Ingres. Picasso meanwhile continued to explore, in the cubist mode of which he had been a founding father during the pre-war period and was still its leading exponent and innovator, the seemingly unbounded possibilities of formal construction and invention, mainly in his practice of still-life painting.
Both approaches nevertheless reflected the impact of a single guiding idea, the notion of le rappel à l’ordre—the “return to order”—the banner around which most artists and literati rallied after the war. Picasso, in his new proclivity for classicism, had himself helped instigate a new trend in pictorial thinking in the wake of the Great War, an ethos of renewal linked to a heightened awareness of tradition. His friend Jean Cocteau formulated this message as a humanistic cultural imperative he urged all artist to heed, to begin healing the grievous wounds that four years of unrelenting carnage had inflicted on the national body and soul. L’ordre to which they aspired was the classical ideal steeped in a love of country, in the grand Gallic tradition of the arts. This aesthetic outlook, as Yves Bonnefoy later described, was “receptive to an experience of unity which is fundamental to everything, as a basic system of order in which all the parts are clearly and harmoniously interconnected, and enable [the artist] to equate reason (or truth) with beauty” (Canto d’Amore: Classicism in Modern Art and Music, exh. cat., Kunstmuseum Basel, 1996, p. 85).
Picasso’s apparently effortless pursuit of an openly bifurcated studio production was then extremely controversial. Partisans of each manner tried to discredit Picasso’s efforts in the other. The new classicists decried cubism as a spent hold-over from the pre-war and wartime eras, while outraged veteran cubists argued that in his classical works Picasso had betrayed the progressive mission of the avant-garde. The contrasting notions of classical and cubist were to Picasso’s mind, however, dual sides of the same coin, the totality of Western art in its most provocative, modern form, capable of generating a potent dialectic from which new transformative ideas might issue forth. He explained his method most simply in a statement written up and translated into English by Marius de Zayas, published in 1923.
“We all know that Art is not truth,” Picasso proclaimed at the outset. “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given to us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies” (in D. Ashton, ed., Picasso on Art, New York, 1972, p. 4).
Observers typically held there to be an irreconcilable contradiction between the representation of a subject by means of a naturalist technique on one hand, and the inventions of form arising from cubism on the other. Picasso had already declared both conceptions to be “lies”, for such was the condition of any and all art. “They speak of naturalism in opposition to modern painting. I would like to know if anyone has ever seen a natural work of art,” Picasso asked. “Nature and art, being two different things, cannot be the same thing. Through art we express our conception of what nature is not” (ibid., p. 4).
Picasso went on to explain how he had chosen to “convince others of the truthfulness of his lies,” anticipating the pluralism of our own post-modern era: “I do not believe I have used radically different elements in the different manners I have used in painting. If the subjects I have wanted to express have suggested different ways of expression, I have never hesitated to adopt them... Whenever I have something to say, I have said it in the manner in which I have felt it ought to be said. Different motives inevitably require different methods of expression” (ibid., p. 5).
If the concepts of classicism and cubism each had something to offer the modern artist, Picasso reckoned, there was then no good reason an artist should not feel free to practice them side-by-side, in parallel strands, or even on the same canvas. Perhaps the greatest freedom that cubism bestowed on modern art, going beyond its ground-breaking analysis of forms, is that it enables, condones and ultimately celebrates the creation of forms that proceed from such analyses, as a valid reality in and of itself, as Picasso declared, a “conception of what nature is not.”
“Many think that cubism is an art of transition, an experiment which is to bring ulterior results. Those who think that way have not understood it,” Picasso cautioned. “Cubism is not either a seed or a foetus, but an art dealing primarily with forms, and when a form is realized it is there to live its own life... If cubism is an art of transition I am sure that the only thing that will come out of it is another form of cubism” (ibid., pp. 5-6).
Such developments in cubism, furthermore, opened portals to other ever-widening pictorial realities, as well as the possibilities inherent in multiple co-existing realities, all leading to a larger, more inclusive experience of the world in art.
“Our subjects might be different, as we have introduced into painting objects and forms that were formerly ignored,” Picasso stated. “We have kept our eyes open to our surroundings, and also our brains... We keep the joy of discovery, the pleasure of the unexpected; our subject itself must be a source of interest” (ibid., p. 6).
“The interplay of stylistic polarities...testified to [Picasso’s] ability to transform himself like Proteus, and thereby to rise above the banal categories that ensnared less powerful artists,” Kenneth E. Silver has written. “At the same time, this joining of the modern and the ancient was a brilliant way of bringing cubism into the fold of tradition while, conversely, diminishing the conservative sting of neo-classicism. In making us concentrate on his artistic prowess, on his unique ability to be both the most traditional artist and the most gifted creator of new forms, Picasso removes himself from the group aspects of both cubist and neo-classical aesthetics... He now appears as a lone artist with multiple personae. This is the Renaissance conception of a solitary, protean, overwhelming genius; Picasso in the 1920s becomes a modern Michelangelo” (Esprit de Corps: The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War, 1914-1925, Princeton, 1989, p. 316).