“Mystery”, “Confusion”, “Madness”: These are the first words that come to mind when patrons were asked to describe Pablo Picasso’s Studio with Plaster Head, while viewing it at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Indeed, the image is confusing and multi-layered. Are we in the room? Are we peering it through a window? Are we outside in the clouds? Is this all happening within a frame? The questions are boundless and the levels of the painting trick the eye. As a still life, there are some definite objects that are easy to identify: an open book, a bust of Zeus, a plaid cloth, a twig in leaf, a peach, a red tablecloth, Fleur de Lis wallpaper, a square ruler, and two plaster-cast arms and hands, one gripping a rod.
Studio with Plaster Head, Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973), Juan-les-Pins, summer 1925. Oil on canvas, 38 5/8 x 51 5/8″ (97.9 x 131.1 cm). © 2012 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
During the time of this painting, Picasso’s first marriage to a ballet dancer Olga Khokhlova was failing. In the summer of 1918, Picasso first married the ballerina from Sergei Diaghilev’s troupe. Picasso met the woman during his work designing the ballet, Parade, in Rome. They were married that summer, but by the time their son Paolo was born, Picasso started to fall out of love. Khokhlova introduced Picasso to an aristocratic world of fetes, formal dinner parties, and galas. In this world the shrimp fork was kept separate from the oyster fork, the salad fork, and the carving fork. It was said that Picasso did not enjoy adhering to the social niceties required by the life of the rich in 1920s Paris. The painting above also happened to be created during a summer month, but one filled with drastically different emotions. It is noted by art historians and zealous Picasso fans that during this period several severed limbs are found in many of his still lifes. It might also be hard to spot, but Picasso also includes a shadow of himself. The year 1925 marks the beginning of a new period for Picasso (considered a crucial moment in his development ) wherein emotional violence and Expressionist distortion permeate his canvas.
The woman behind the emotions, and who is conspicuously missing from the painting.
The confusion in the imagery leads me to the overarching question, “What does it all mean?” To Picasso (a cubist, a collagist, painter, ceramicist, artist, and printmaker) artwork often embraced the ambiguity of formal meaning and presentation of “truth”. He clarifies:
“Everyone wants to understand art. Why don’t we try to understand the song of a bird? Why do we love the night, the flowers, everything around us, without trying to understand them? But in the case of a painting, people think they have to understand. If only they would realize above all that an artist works of necessity, that he himself is only an insignificant part of the world, and that no more importance should be attached to him than to plenty of other things which please us in the world though we can’t explain them; people who try to explain pictures are usually barking up the wrong tree.” – Pablo Picasso
Michael Sima, “Picasso and Samuel Kootz in Picasso’s Studio”, Paris, 1947 . Photograph. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Provided by Yale University Art Gallery
Picasso at the studio of the Bateau Lavoir, 1908, from Dan Franck’s book: Bohemian Paris- Picasso, Modligiani, Matisse and the Birth of Modern Art
Brigitte Bardot visits Pablo Picasso in Cannes, 1956, The Observer’s New Review.
David Douglas Duncan’s portrait of Jacqueline teaching Picasso a ballet routine in Picasso’s studio. (Here.)
My personal favorite design element in the painting are the multicolored Fleur De Lis wallpapers, fitting as Picasso was living in a town in the commune of Antibes, in the Alpes-Maritimes, in southeastern France. Let’s try this look in a more sensical, less cubist form – REAL LIFE.
Wallcovering and Wallpapers courtesy of Zoffany and Echo who employ long standing techniques to modern colors for a twist on “period decor”. Using such basic printing and longstanding design but with accented bold colors creates the feeling of a “Contemporary Classic” immediately. Stencil from here.
The aforementioned Picasso painting (Studio w/ Plaster Head) is an example of a Still Life. Traditionally, this genre is defined as a painting wherein inanimate objcets are represented. Typically the objects are meant to be commonplace occurrences in daily life. To be included in a still life is to show some important to the owner or painter. Often manmade items are also represented to show symbolism. Many times artists were employed to make still lives (particularly in the 16th-18th centuries) in order to “show off” aristocratic wealth – displaying coins, rare objects, curios, pheasants, guns, textiles, and pets. By the time Picasso began painting, still lifes had fallen out of fashion and were painted more as explorations of color and pattern then as strict representations of daily life. Picasso, being classically trained at The Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, would have absolutely been trained in the original technique. Below I take objects from the painting, and re-imagine each in a contemporary room:
2. (The object inspiration is the twig) PAPIER-MÂCHÉ EASTER EGGS (hung from twigs), West Elm – $6.00 each – CLICK
3. (The object inspiration is the wooden square ruler) Vintage Pencil & R uler Chime and Mobile, Etsy – $48.00 – CLICK
4. (The object inspiration is the red and gold tablecloth) PENDLETON HOME, IVORY HARDING BLANKET, 1923, Acrimony – $216.00 – CLICK
5. (The object inspiration is the Roman bust) – O’Sullivan Antiques, 1stDibs.com – CLICK
If you do not believe the small objects in his painting are so important as to garner my attention to duplicate each, remember the words of Picasso, “One does a whole painting for one peach and people think just the opposite — that particular peach is but a detail.”