Painted in 1922 at the apex of Picasso's neoclassical period, Buste de femme à la chemise exemplifies in masterfully distilled form the wealth of pictorial and thematic possibilities that Picasso quarried from the art of the past in the years following the First World War. With its creative and highly personal synthesis of various classicizing strands in the history of art (Greek and Roman prototypes; the Italian cinquecento; the French tradition of Poussin, Ingres, Puvis de Chavannes, and Renoir), the present painting forms part of Picasso's ongoing attempt to define his own position among ancient and modern masters, as well as his broader meditation upon the endurance of culture in the postwar period.
A lyrical and evocative rendering of an idealized figure in ancient dress, the painting also demonstrates Picasso's genius for transforming and transcending the constraints of portraiture in order to engage larger themes. Summarizing Picasso's achievement in works like Buste de femme, Michael FitzGerald has written:
Among the many phases of Picasso's work, neoclassicism is perhaps the most controversial, because its stylistic eclecticism and widespread popularity have led some writers to criticize it as a reactionary departure from modernism. When placed in the context of cultural developments during World War I, however, Picasso's neoclassicism is better understood as a renewal of the avant-garde. By explicitly embracing history, Picasso escaped the strictures of an increasingly rigid modernism to define a more vital alternative. He repudiated the convention of modernism's ahistoricism in order to acknowledge its maturity, as well as his own, and rejuvenate the avant-garde by immersing it in the rich humanistic traditions that many Cubist artists and theorists denied in a search for formal purity. (M.C. FitzGerald, "The Modernists' Dilemma: Neoclassicism and the Portrayal of Olga Khokhlova", in W. Rubin, ed., Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 297)
The present picture was painted at Dinard, a fashionable resort area on the Brittany coast where Picasso, his wife Olga Khokhlova and their young son Paulo spent the summer of 1922. The sojourn at Dinard was enormously fruitful for Picasso. Between June and September, he executed more than sixty oil paintings and nearly two hundred drawings, ranging from tender portraits of his wife and son to landscape sketches and Cubist-inspired still-lifes. Yet arguably the strongest and most characteristic group of pictures that Picasso made at Dinard is a series of classicizing female figures, at once fluid and monumental, ethereal and eternal, of which Buste de femme is an outstanding example. The Dinard women, whether draped or nude, have the sculptural solidity and idealized features of antique statuary; their coiffure, parted in the middle and gently waved, is that of Hellenic goddesses, while their crisp brows and heavy lids look as though they were carved from stone. In contrast, however, to the massive, ossified matrons of Trois Femmes à la fontaine (fig. 1), Picasso's masterpiece of the previous summer, the Dinard figures are gracious and elusive, imbued with both physical and psychological vitality. Like sculptures come to quiet, contemplative life, they are both the archetypal incarnation of woman and a living symbol of art and artistic tradition.
Indeed, the sources for the Dinard women, as for Picasso's Neo-Classicism generally, are extraordinarily rich and varied. In 1917, during a trip to Rome to design stage-sets for Diaghilev's Parade, Picasso made excursions to see the ruins of ancient Pompeii, the archaeological collections in Naples, and the work of Raphael and his contemporaries in Florence. The dancer and choreographer Léonce Massine, who accompanied Picasso to Pompeii, later recalled the artist's exhilaration at the site, "Picasso was thrilled by the majestic ruins, and climbed endlessly over broken columns to stand staring at fragments of Roman statuary" (quoted in A. Baldassari, "Pompeian Fantasy: A Photographic Source of Picasso's Neoclassicism," in J. Clair, ed., Picasso, 1917-1924: The Italian Journey, exh. cat., Palazzo Grassi, Venice, 1998, pp. 79-80).
Picasso also had the opportunity to study ancient fresco painting during his stay in Italy. A photograph taken by Jean Cocteau amid the ruins of Pompeii shows Picasso pointing to a painting of Bacchus and Silenus, and the Musée Picasso in Paris houses several postcards of Pompeian frescoes that the artist purchased in Naples. The well-rounded proportions, clinging drapery, waved coiffure, and distinctive facial canon of the Dinard women find clear parallels in the Pompeian images, while the heightened lyricism of the 1922 suite may suggest a debt to the supple touch of ancient fresco. Closer at hand, the Louvre offered the example of Poussin, Ingres, and Puvis de Chavannes; while at the Galerie Paul Rosenberg, where Picasso began to exhibit in 1919, the classicizing nudes of Renoir took center stage.
In their rich amalgamation of historical sources, the Dinard paintings surpass any conventional definition of portraiture, despite the close resemblance of works like the present one to Picasso's wife Olga (fig. 2). To be sure, it was the figure of Olga that had inspired Picasso in 1917 to make his first oil paintings in the Neo-Classical mode, and her image continued to permeate his unique brand of classicism for the next six years; so inextricable was Olga to Picasso's life and work at Dinard that he inscribed the inside cover of one of his Dinard sketchbooks "Dinard/Olga". In paintings like Buste de femme, however, the image of Olga is idealized and ennobled, mediated through the lens of history (just as in the Rose Period, Fernande Olivier had been recreated in a panoply of guises culled from antiquity through the nineteenth century).
As Robert Rosenblum has explained, "Predictably, Picasso's backward evolution to the pure and vigorous origins of classical art has a more personal inflection than that of his contemporaries; and his familiar quotations from ideal beauty are imbued with a quivering physical and psychological life that reflects his mysterious, Pygmalion-like power as their creator" (R. Rosenblum, "Picasso in Gósol: The Calm before the Storm", in M. McCully, ed., Picasso: The Early Years, 1892-1906, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1997, p. 270).
In addition to looking backward for inspiration in pictures like Buste de femme, Picasso may also have had in mind a more immediate source: the repertory of classicizing female deities who represented the French nation in popular patriotic imagery during the wartime and postwar years. Although Picasso's classical maidens are far too generalized to function as explicit allegories, they nonetheless offer a evocative counterpoint to the ubiquitous Victories, Glories, and Patries of the popular press. As Kenneth Silver has proposed:
Just as the French nation during the war turned to l'histoire in its dual aspect of history and 'story' or myth for moral support, so Picasso creates a mythic Antique world that nonetheless has the weight and reassuring gravity of truth... These mythical women had watched over France in her darkest hour and were also symbolic of her triumph in 1918... [Their] task...was nothing less than the guardianship of the French nation and...the protection and defense of a far more ancient culture. They are at once the symbols for and the protectors of Western civilization in perpetuity..." (K.E. Silver, Esprit de Corps: The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War, 1914-1925, Princeton, 1989, pp. 278, 283, 287)
Buste de femme à la chemise was confiscated from the Städtische Galerie in Frankfurt am Main in 1937 and stored at Schloss, Niederschönhausen in Berlin until its inclusion in the sale of "Degenerate Art" at Galerie Fischer, Lucerne on 30 June 1939 (fig. 3). The cataloguing for the present work at the Galerie Fischer sale read as follows:
Frauenkopf (Buste de femme/Head of a woman)
Brown. Robustly painted head of a full-blooded Southern European woman with white shirt against a dark brown background.
signed upper [ic] right: Picasso 22
oil on canvas, 46/55 cm.
From Frankfurt. Städtische Galerie.
Exhibited: Société des amis d'arts de Limoges, Exposition 1933.
Reproduced in: Zervos, Picasso
In the 1991 "Degenerate Art" exhibition catalogue, Stephanie Barron indicates additional information:
Städtisches Galerie, Frankfurt, confiscated in 1937
Fischer, lot 117, est SF 12,600, sold for SF 8,000
Dietz, by written bid, present location unknown.
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Trois Femmes à la fontaine, Fontainebleau, summer 1921.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
© 2001 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, Portrait d'Olga au col de fourrure, drypoint, 1923.
© 2001 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
(fig. 3) Confiscated "Degenerate Art" at the Schloss, Niederschönhausen, Berlin; with the present work visible.
Buste de femme à la chemise
Oil on canvas
THE COLLECTION OF RENÉ GAFFÉ
Property from the Estate of Madame René Gaffé
Signed and dated 'Picasso 22' (lower right)
Société des amis d'arts de Limoges, 1933 (per the Galerie Fischer catalogue).
21 5/8 x 18 1/8 in. (55.2 x 46 cm.)
C. Zervos, Pablo Picasso, Paris, 1951, vol. 4 (Oeuvres de 1920 à 1922), no. 390 (illustrated, pl. 161; without dimensions).
R. Gaffé, A la verticale: Réflexions d'un collectionneur, Brussels, 1963, p. 75 (illustrated; titled Jeune Femme romaine).
S. Barron, ed., Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1991, pp. 136, 144 and 168 (illustrated, figs. 119 and 131; with dimensions inverted; with incorrect Zervos reference, no. 396).
The Picasso Project, ed., Picasso's Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture, A Comprehensive Illustrated Catalogue (1881-1973): Neoclassicism, San Francisco, 1996, p. 48, no. 22-144 (illustrated).
J. Palau i Fabre, Picasso, From the Ballets to Drama (1917-1926), Barcelona, 1999, p. 336, no. 1247 (illustrated, p. 337; titled Buste de femme en chemise; without dimensions).
Städtische Galerie, Frankfurt am Main (confiscated by the National Socialist Government in 1937 as an example of Entartete Kunst ("Degenerate Art").
Sale, Galerie Fischer, Lucerne, 30 June 1939, lot 117 (illustrated).
M. Dietz (acquired at the above sale per Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1991 exh. cat.)