‘Resemblance is what I am after, a resemblance deeper and more real than the real, that is what constitutes the sur-real’ -Pablo Picasso
‘From [Picasso’s] open air laboratory, divinely unusual beings will continue to fly into the gathering night, dancers dragging shards of marble fireplaces with them…’ -André Breton
Depicting three floating, amorphously rendered figures engaged in a whirling acrobatic display in front of an audience of onlookers, Pablo Picasso’s Le cirque was painted in Paris on 5 February 1933, a time that is often regarded as his Surrealist period. One of a small series of five works, this painting presents one of Picasso’s favourite themes: the circus. Since his earliest days as an artist, the performance and characters of the circus, the harlequins and acrobats, had served as rich subject matter for the artist. Here, perhaps as a result of visiting Paris’ Cirque Médrano, something that he had frequently done throughout his life in Paris, Picasso has reimagined this motif, using a language of biomorphic distortion to depict the dancing performers. Engaged in part with the Surrealist movement since its bold inception in 1924, Picasso, while sharing the same preoccupations as these artists, and admiring their collaborative spirit of creativity, had maintained a conscious distance from this avant-garde group, hesitant to lose his artistic independence.
Le cirque encapsulates a number of the themes and ideas that had been preoccupying Picasso at this time. Completely immersed in his youthful, radiant and blonde-haired muse Marie-Thérèse Walter, Picasso had spent the previous year painting the now-legendary portraits and nudes of his clandestine lover and muse. Young, innocent, athletic and cheerful, Marie-Thérèse had unleashed a rapturous new passion-filled aesthetic in the artist, as he painted with sweeping, sensuously undulating lines and radiant colours. Together the pair spent blissful days at the artist’s home in Boisgeloup. Far from his neurotic wife Olga, and the commitments of life in Paris, Picasso could indulge unimpeded in his muse and lover, producing a prolific number of paintings, sculptures and drawings. Towards the end of the year however, Marie-Thérèse had fallen seriously ill after catching a disease whilst swimming in the river Marne. Hospitalised, she took many months to recover. This event deeply affected Picasso, a fact reflected by the proliferation at this time of works that take as their subject the theme of a rescue. In November, he painted a small series of paintings that combine acrobatic, leaping figures set upon a seashore – reminiscent of his earlier Bather scenes of the late 1920s – with a drowning figure being scooped up out of the water (Zervos vol. 8, nos. 62-64). In December, this theme culminated in the Le sauvetage (Zervos vol. 8, no. 66, Fondation Beyeler, Basel), which presents a nymph-like girl – most likely the figure of Marie-Thérèse – falling back lifelessly as two other women attempt to pull her from the watery depths. Though presenting a starkly contrasting subject, the three acrobatic protagonists of Le cirque are immediately reminiscent of the ‘Rescue’ works of the previous year. Picasso has used the same simplified corporeal distortion to portray these circus performers. With their limbs extended in different directions, they seem to float amorphously above the stage, their lilac and white bodies – the same painterly language that he frequently used to depict Marie-Thérèse – iridescent under the glowing stage lights and the darkened background. It comes as no surprise that these acrobatic figures are reminiscent of Picasso’s contemporaneous depictions of Marie-Thérèse. At this time, every figure in Picasso’s art became that of Marie-Thérèse; she appears as a recumbent fertility goddess, an enthroned Madonna, a Venus serenaded by a pipe player, a nude woman being devoured by a minotaur, a bather, or a girl at rest, sleeping or reading. Painted at the height of his obsession with Marie-Thérèse, Le cirque could likewise be seen as another evocation of his lithe, athletic lover; a further metamorphosis of his powerful muse.
As much as Le cirque reflects Picasso’s current obsessions, it is also reminiscent of one of the artist’s earlier masterpieces: La danse of 1925 (Tate Gallery, London). In what has become regarded as one of the artist’s most Surrealist works, here Picasso pictures three frenzied female figures engaged in an ecstatic, Dionysian-like ritualistic dance. Moving away from the Synthetic Cubism that had defined his art post-World War One, this enigmatic painting shows Picasso embrace the unbridled biomorphic figural abstraction that would come to characterise his work of the later 1920s and 30s, fusing these distinct idioms in a work that seems to explode with fervent energy and vibrating emotion. In front of a window, these figures are engaged in a performance, their arms thrown up and legs lifted as if moving to a sound the viewer is unable to hear. This sense of performance and display is also evident in Le cirque and the rest of the works of this small series. Like La danse there is the same sense of frenzy and movement, as these abstracted figures seem to dance and move in tandem, their limbs almost touching one another as if they are linked in a chain of feverish movement. Heightening this sense of performance are the faces that look on from the shadowy background, as well as the lines of red and green paint – most likely the glowing stage lights – that frame this whirling trio. Transporting the viewer in to the realm of the circus, Picasso presents us with a strange, energy-charged ritualistic performance. As Josep Palau i Fabre has described these figures, ‘Bird-personages they spin through the space, describing with their bodies arabesques that are more subtle still’ (J. Palau i Fabre, Picasso 1917-1926: From the Ballets to Drama, Cologne, 1999, p. 136).
It was in 1933, the year that he painted Le cirque, that Picasso came the closest he ever came to publicly affiliating himself with the Surrealists. Indeed, John Richardson states that this was the only year in which Picasso actually confessed to being a Surrealist (J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso, Volume III: The Triumphant Years, London, 2007, p. 488). In the spring of this year, Picasso was commissioned to design a cover for a new Surrealist periodical edited by André Breton, called Minotaure. Inspired by the periodical’s name, he created a work that featured a minotaur, which graced the front of what was essentially an issue dedicated to the artist. Along with Brassaï’s photographs of Picasso’s Boisgeloup sculpture studio, the periodical also presented the artist’s concurrent Anatomies, a sequence of drawings in which the female figure is transformed into a composite of found object parts. In addition to his contribution to this project, the artist also participated in the Surrealist Exhibition at the Galerie Pierre Colle. Never before had Picasso so overtly linked himself with Surrealism. Breton had long hailed Picasso as the embodiment of the Surrealist artist – someone who was dedicated to the pursuit of a distinct subjective vision which was realised with a constant diversity of styles – and had tried on numerous occasions to persuade Picasso to publicly declare himself as a member of the Surrealist group. Ultimately however, Picasso maintained his own unique form of expression, remaining distinct from any specific group or movement. It was this independence that ensured he remained in a league of his own, occupying a distinct and unassailable position at the forefront of the interwar avant-garde world of Paris.