Picasso in Fontainebleau: An Introduction
Read an exclusive excerpt from the exhibition catalogue, about Picasso’s confounding output in the summer of 1921.
Sep 27, 2023
From left: Pablo Picasso. Three Women at the Spring. Fontainebleau, 1921. Oil on canvas, 6' 8 1/4" × 6' 8 1/2" (203.9 × 174 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Allan D. Emil; Pablo Picasso. Three Musicians. Fontainebleau, 1921. Oil on canvas, 6' 8 1/2" × 6' 2 1/8" (204.5 × 188.3 cm). The Philadelphia Museum of Art. A. E. Gallatin Collection, 1952. Both works © 2023 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Historical photographs show that between July and September 1921 Pablo Picasso completed two very large and astonishingly different-looking paintings. Tacked up side by side on the west wall of his temporary garage studio in Fontainebleau, France, each measured more than six feet high. They would have towered over the five-foot-four-inch Picasso as he worked on them, with their canvas supports affixed directly to the wall’s hard surface and their lower edges raised just a few inches above the floor. On the left hung Picasso’s classicizing Three Women at the Spring (above, left). Now in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, the painting features three colossal, sculpturally rendered, chiton-clad women, each with an amphora, positioned before a mysterious water source in a shallow, indeterminate, grotto-like space, the figures and their setting evoking Greco-Roman antiquity. To the right of Three Women at the Spring hung Picasso’s cubist Three Musicians (above, right), now in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Its colorful, costumed trio of masked performers (left to right, a Harlequin, a Pierrot, and a monk), seated behind a table on a box-like stage, with bodies as flat as those of the three women are volumetric, reprised on a monumental scale the collage syntax of Picasso’s revolutionary pre–World War I cubism.
The only prior exhibition to focus on this specific moment in the artist’s career, Picasso à Fontainebleau, été 1921, was organized in 2007 by former Musée National Picasso–Paris President Anne Baldassari and presented at the Château de Fontainebleau.1 It was drawn almost exclusively from the Musée National Picasso–Paris’s collection and accompanied by a French language–only publication, which reproduced four of the six extant historical photographs documenting the works Picasso installed in his Fontainebleau garage-turned-studio; it also referenced several key documents from the artist’s personal archive for the first time, including the lease of his rented villa that established the precise dates of his stay, from the beginning of July through late September 1921.2 In her introductory essay, Baldassari argues that the opposing stylistic idioms manifest in Picasso’s Fontainebleau oeuvre should be understood as a continuation of his “deconstruction” of the workings of visual rhetoric, initiated during his early cubist years, which revealed everything to be a constructed sign that achieves meaning relationally and contextually.3
Pablo Picasso. Three Musicians. Fontainebleau, 1921. Oil on canvas, 6' 7" × 7' 3 3/4" (200.7 × 222.9 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund. © 2023 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
We, some 16 years later, build on Baldassari’s important precedent by reuniting, for the first time since they left Picasso’s studio, the two monumental versions of Three Women at the Spring and the two of Three Musicians with many other works Picasso produced during his brief three-month stay in Fontainebleau.4 Doing so makes it possible to experience firsthand the extraordinary breadth and variety of this body of work and to position it alongside relevant primary documents, archival materials, and historical photographs. We have also collaborated with a team of conservators and conservation scientists to innovatively approach Three Women at the Spring, Three Musicians, and the other works Picasso created in Fontainebleau through a materials-based lens, believing that how they were made cannot be separated from what they mean. While Three Women at the Spring and Three Musicians have each been the subject of detailed iconographic analyses, accumulating multifaceted, at times contradictory interpretations that range from ancient Greek statuary to the ruinous landscapes of World War I and from specific biographical events to generic scenes of popular entertainment, Picasso’s use of materials too rewards close scrutiny, disclosing his savvy manipulation of the multiple valences associated with particular processes and techniques.5 Overall, we aimed to survey the Fontainebleau corpus relationally, illuminating the complex historical, material, critical, and economic variables that intersect both well-known works like Three Women at the Spring and Three Musicians and the 80 others Picasso produced in the unique circumstances of his Fontainebleau residency.6 We also carefully studied the physical parameters of Picasso’s temporary summer studio—its architecture, siting, relation to his rented house and garden and to the town of Fontainebleau itself—with an eye to how these different factors might (or might not) have impacted his work while there. Lastly, we approached the writing of this publication in a spirit of storytelling, allowing ourselves to imagine, guess, and speculate—supported by primary observation and archival research—about Picasso’s process, his working rituals, how he generated ideas, and the special temporality of the studio. Our overarching goal was to recapture, for ourselves and for our readers, some small sense of what the experience of being in Fontainebleau, and in that garage workspace, during the summer of 1921 must have been like.
Want to read more? Pick up a copy of Picasso in Fontainebleau.
The exhibition Picasso in Fontainebleau is on view at MoMA October 8, 2023–February 17, 2024.
This essay has been improved in countless ways by the contributions and insights of Francesca Ferrari. I am tremendously grateful to her, and to Adrian Sudhalter, for a close critical read of an early draft.
The 2007 exhibition included the red chalk version of Three Women at the Spring along with other works in the Musée National Picasso–Paris’s collection, such as the large charcoal drawing The Spring, line drawings of the house and gardens, red chalk hand studies, and archival material from the Musée National Picasso–Paris and the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris. Borrowed materials included a study of Three Women at the Spring from the Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris.
Anne Baldassari, “Les mêmes images, seulement sur des plans différentes . . . ,” in Baldassari, et al., Picasso à Fontainebleau, été 1921, exh. cat. (Fontainebleau: Château de Fontainebleau, 2007), 7.
The first and last time that Picasso’s four large Fontainebleau canvases were brought together after leaving the artist’s studio was in The Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Pablo Picasso: A Retrospective, on view from May 22 through September 30, 1980. On this occasion, they were separated into “Monumental Neoclassicism” and “Commedia dell’Arte” rooms and unaccompanied by the multitude of related Fontainebleau works highlighted in the present exhibition.
For key iconographic analyses of Three Women at the Spring and Three Musicians, see, in order of publication, Theodore Reff, “Picasso’s Three Musicians: Maskers, Artists, and Friends,” Art in America, December 1980, 124–42; Katharina Schmidt, “Pablo Picasso: Three Women at the Spring,” in Canto d’Amore: Classicism and Modern Art and Music 1914–1935 (Basel: Kunstmuseum Basel, 1996), 246–67; and Elizabeth Cowling, Picasso: Style and Meaning (New York: Phaidon, 2002). Schmidt, “Pablo Picasso,” 252–53, also lingers on the materiality of the studies for Three Women at the Spring to chart the iconographical development of the huge corpus of *Three Women*–related works. Our object-based approach encompasses the entire production in Fontainebleau, generating relationships between works with varied iconography.
Christian Zervos identifies some 60 works as executed in Fontainebleau. See Zervos IV: 276–77, 279, 282, 285, 290–305, 310–26, 331–34, 344–47, 349, 351, 354, 356, 358; Zervos XXX: 242, 248–49, 253–58. Zervos’s sixth volume, which also covers the summer of 1921, provides no notes about place of creation. Zervos’s estimate does not include some works kept by Picasso throughout his life, most of which entered the collection of the Musée National Picasso–Paris following the settlement of the artist’s estate. Others were inherited by family members, some of which are now part of the Fundación Almine y Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, Madrid.
What Makes Picasso’s Three Women at the Spring Modern?
Curators and conservators look closely at a painting made in the artist’s garage studio during a pivotal summer.
Oct 5, 2023
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