The Studio as a Theater: Picasso and the Fourth Wall
A theater director looks at works Pablo Picasso made in his summer garage studio.
Anne Umland, Patricia McGregor
Oct 5, 2023
When is a painting like a stage? In 1921, fresh from his collaboration designing stage sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes, Pablo Picasso left Paris for a rented summer home in the French countryside, where he began working on several canvases that filled the walls of his garage studio. His incredibly productive and surprisingly varied work during those three months is the focus of the exhibition Picasso in Fontainebleau. Senior curator Anne Umland sat down with Patricia McGregor, a director, writer, and the artistic director of New York Theatre Workshop, to look closely at several major paintings in the exhibition and discuss their relationship to different tropes of theater. Below is an edited excerpt of their conversation.
From left: Pablo Picasso. Three Women at the Spring. Fontainebleau, 1921. Oil on canvas, 6' 8 1/4" × 68 1/2" (203.9 × 174 cm). The Museum of Modern Art. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Allan D. Emil © 2023 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Pablo Picasso. Three Musicians. Fontainebleau, 1921. Oil on canvas , 6' 81⁄2" × 6' 21⁄8" (204.5 × 188.3 cm) The Philadelphia Museum of Art. A. E. Gallatin Collection, 1952. © 2023 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
PM: Both pieces, but in particular Three Musicians, feels very theatrical. Let’s start with the faces. It almost feels like they’re in masks, and there’s something about what I would consider their costumes where color and shape is really attended to. Greg Tate, who was a great musician and loved visual art, would often say the musicians aren’t supposed to look like the audience. There’s also a way in which this is not a landscape picture. They are not a small piece of a larger whole. They are front and center. They are the thing that you should be attending to. Their frontal nature, the way in which they feel aware of what I would consider the audience or the spectator, they are playing to us, whereas Three Women at the Spring, it feels like they are more being observed. There’s a psychological realism, we would deem in theatrical terms, that they are living their life unaware of the spectator, that we are getting to glimpse into their world. Whereas with Three Musicians, it feels like they are there to burst into our world. That burst has an intentional theatricality to it that I really respond to and am delighted by.
AU: Is there a model in the theater world for figures, actors, scenarios that don’t engage directly with the audience?
PM: In theater, when the actors or whoever’s on stage should not be aware of the audience, we call that line between the stage and the audience the “fourth wall.” We as the audience are observing what’s happening, but they, theoretically, are not aware of our presence, and when they do become aware of our presence, we call that “breaking the fourth wall.” A lot of plays—and especially because we’ve been so influenced recently by television and film, a lot of that work—is where the fourth wall is up, where people are living this life and we are quiet viewers watching that. I feel there’s great value in that work and I also tend to like pieces that break that up from time to time, like the Three Musicians.
From left: Pablo Picasso. Three Women at the Spring. Fontainebleau, 1921. Red chalk on canvas, 6' 6 3/4" × 63 3/8" (200 × 161 cm). Musée National Picasso–Paris. Dation Pablo Picasso. © RMN–Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY: Photo Adrien Didierjean; 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. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund. Both works © 2023 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
AU: Picasso painted two versions of the Three Musicians, both very large, and they faced each other in the studio space, which was about 10 feet wide. You have three here, you have three across the way, and they both hold out music like that, as though to each other. Do you have any particular association with the motif of three, or with trios? Could there be a connection to the three-act structure we see in plays?
PM: I organize most things I think about in threes, and in some ways that’s because I feel there’s always a before, a during, and an after. That might be a linear way of perceiving the world, but it’s also an organizational structure that, for me, acknowledges origin or history or what came before, really engages with the present or what is, and then visions or dreams of what’s after. There’s also a dynamic tension. I just love that it breaks up the rhythm in a certain way. When I think of Shakespeare, we often talk about iambic pentameter, where the meter goes, bada, bada, bada, bada, bada, and often, when a character is in distress or discovering something new, there’ll be an additional foot, there’ll be an additional beat, that doesn’t just go 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, it will go 1-2-3, and then you pay attention in a new way because there is that third beat.
AU: Paying attention in a new way, that sounds like a good aspiration for almost any work of art, theatrical or pictorial or sound-based. There are several other works in this exhibition that reference Picasso’s interest in theater, such as his costume and stage set designs for the Ballets Russes. What do you think is the relationship between visual art, a static form of art like drawing or painting, and theater or live performance?
PM: As much as theater is a work of words and the way in which those words and ideas resonate with the audience, it is also a place where what you see affects deeply the whole experience. That’s from the scenic design to the costumes. In graduate school, my roommate was a costume designer and she would often say costume is the character. It will tell you everything you need to know. There is often a visual artist who is a galvanizing inspiration for the design world of the production I’m creating. I might reference Bisa Butler, Mondrian, Fahamu Pecou, or others to help set the tone for the world. Eliinor Fuchs writes about how each play creates its own universe, and visual artists help me specify the shape, feel, and rules of that universe. For example, in my office there’s a quilt that Sanford Biggers made that was a part of a scenic design for a piece, Place, we did at BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music]. Sanford, who’s one of my favorite painters and sculptors, is also interested in theatrical design, because he is interested in the visuals of the space where an event happens. And so I think that there’s a really exciting relationship between visual art and theater. As a director, when I get into design, there’s usually a visual artist who helps me understand the world that I share with all of the artists. I think theater is a space that can house all of the arts: music, visual arts, dance, all of that.
Patricia McGregor is a writer and the artistic director of the New York Theater Workshop. Her latest production, The Refuge Plays, runs through November 12, 2023.
The original interview was recorded by Arlette Hernandez. Listen to this and other interviews in the Picasso in Fontainebleau audio guide.
Picasso in Fontainebleau is on view through February 17, 2024.
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
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