by Roderick Conway Morris

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Pompidou, Paris
Curtain for the Ballets Russes's Parade by Picasso, 1917

Picasso's Italian Sojourns

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 14 March 1998


It was the Ballets Russes not the Italian Old Masters that finally brought Picasso to the peninsula in 1917, persuaded by his friend Jean Cocteau to come to Rome to design the set and costumes for a new production, 'Parade.' Once there, Picasso showed little inclination to search out the great Italian painters of the past - whose works, however, he was already familiar with from the Prado and the Louvre - and though he went on to Naples and Florence, he never even set foot in Venice.

So Palazzo Grassi on the Grand Canal might seem, at first glance, an odd venue for 'Picasso 1917-1924,' devoted to the artist's visit to Italy and its consequences. It is curated by Jean Clair, director of the Musée Picasso in Paris and continues until June 28.

In fact, Clair said, the choice of location was dictated partly by the practical consideration of where on earth to hang Picasso's huge drop curtain for 'Parade,' which has not been shown for 30 years and has just been restored. The lofty, light-filled, temperature-controlled atrium of the Palazzo has proved an ideal and dramatic solution.

But the idea of bringing Picasso 'back to Italy' works on another level. For despite the artist's disinclination to engage directly with celebrated Italian works, or admit any debt to them, his sojourn here influenced his subsequent work in ways not necessarily obvious.

This comprehensive survey of those few years, embracing nearly 300 works from 44 collections, has been made possible by the inclusion of pieces on display for the first time, and of many that will not be exhibited again for a long time, in view of their delicate state of conservation, Clair said.

The Ballets Russes's 15-minute 'Parade' was scripted by Cocteau with music by Erik Satie and choreography by Leonide Massine, and expectations were high for what has been dubbed 'the first Cubist ballet': 'Will Pablo Picasso be able to convert the Holy Father to Cubism?' one art paper asked on Picasso's departure for Rome.

His curtain came as a surprise to his collaborators, and necessitated changes in the production. Not least because in this enormous painting the artist unexpectedly returned to the more conventionally figurative circus and harlequin themes that had occupied him more than a decade before - although the costumes of the stage characters of the Horse, and the French and American Managers were decidedly Cubist.

The juxtaposition of these two styles marks a decisive point in Picasso's development, in that it constitutes a public declaration of his refusal to be confined to any particular style or trend at any particular moment.

The establishing of this principle is illustrated by the 'Parade' curtain and costumes and also in a sequence of 'Roman' works on the subject of 'The Italian Woman': variously realized in precise traditional drawings, a pointillist watercolor and a Cubist oil.

The artist's avoidance of Italy's galleries and museums (although it is still a matter of debate exactly what he did or did not see) and his tendency to shut himself away in his studio in Via Margutta, did not render him immune to Rome's other, more folkloric, charms.

As the show demonstrates amusingly, however, his boldly delineated monochrome drawings of picturesquely dressed country women at the Spanish Steps were not taken from life but based on luridly tinted picture postcards that he bought and kept in his sketchbook.

The 1917 stay in Rome also led to Picasso's discovery of a new muse, the Ballets Russes dancer Olga Koklova, whom he married in Paris the following year, and with whom he had his first son, in 1921.

Picasso's trip to Naples was especially fruitful. He reveled in the explicit eroticism and mystery-laden atmosphere of Pompeii, and in the imagery of Neapolitan street life and popular theater. All this provided a wealth of material for the subsequent ballets 'Pulcinella' and 'Mercure' (whose smaller curtains figure in the show).

And, as convincingly argued by Werner Spies in the catalogue, the trip influenced the overall composition of the 'Parade' curtain, which was based on a tavern scene by the little-known 19th-century painter Achille Vianelli in the city's San Martino museum. (A photograph of the painting has also been found in Picasso's sketchbook.)

The full flowering of Picasso's encounter with Italy and his renewed contact with his Mediterranean roots did not occur until the early 1920s, in his extraordinary neoclassical sculptural and monumental figures. These potent images of manhood, motherhood and fertility seem inspired by the experience of the birth of his son and a determination to master and re-interpret ancient Greek and Roman statuary, an enterprise that gave rise to a whole series of works, culminating in 'The Pipes of Pan' of 1923, set in a timeless, sunlit Mediterranean world, at once inescapably solid and corporeal, and vibrant with spiritual forces.

Picasso did not go to Italy again until 1949, for a Peace Congress in the capital. On this occasion he is reported to have said not only that he had never seen the Vatican Museums or the Sistine Chapel, but that he did not remember ever having been in Rome before. On seeing Michelangelo's Last Judgment, he admired the artist's use of 'blue and brown,' but said he was only moderately impressed by Raphael's frescoes.

What this lucidly presented exhibition unfolds, however, is that Picasso's reluctant and accidental first excursion to Italy had a profound impact on him. At the same time the show highlights the paradox of Picasso's dual ambition to both beat them and join them: to match, challenge and supersede his predecessors, and to carve out for himself an enduring place among them in the pantheon of classic Western art.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023