I’m writing this post on a Mediterranean beach in Greek Cyprus as that is the essence of this painting: Mediterranean light and sensuality, Classical culture, family fun and frolics. It is the beating heart of the Picasso Museum in old Antibes, the single work which captures the spirit of the collection based in a beautiful grand old house overlooking the sparkling sea.
The Musee Picasso in the Marais of Paris is a wonderful collection cutting across the great man’s lifetime of work (I consider Picasso alongside Bacon as the greatest of 20th Century artists). This collection is far more specific, capturing a brief period after the war when Picasso was in effect artist in residence on a floor of the Chateau Grimaldi, which in 1966 was renamed the Musee Picasso, Antibes. This month was my third visit – I was hooked by the vibe of the place when I first visited about a decade ago with my other half. I was back again last year when I walked over the hill from Juan Les Pins whilst over for the International Digital Emmys. I was back again for those and a speaking sesh at MIP this year and spent a marvellous Sunday there. As I walked up the hill from the old covered market I coincided with the Palm Sunday congregation exiting the resonant ochre church opposite the museum, carrying a variety of symbolic, palm-related plants including woven crosses of palm. I sat myself down on the stone bench in the square separating the church and the Chateau Grimaldi, a stoney canyon giving on to the sea between high walls and blocks of shadow, and sketched the view from the sail-boats flowing across the waves to the students sitting looking out to them, bathed in the bright Mediterranean light.
Without having done any biographical research, I get the impression Picasso was recharging his batteries here after the war, delighting in the Simple Pleasures, from fish to music, from sea urchins to women in all their complexity, from good food and wine to friendship. The photos beside his studio floor by Michel Sima show him with Francoise Gilot, mother of his children, with Paul Eluard (Surrealist poet) and Nusch Eluard (his wife, Surrealist muse), in local restaurants along this bit of coast, working away in the cool shadows of the top floor of this building in sandals, bare torso, bullish like his Minotaur characters who seem confounded, in the line drawn illustrations on display, by the naked women in their lives and their own hairy nature.
The painting depicts a scene from the Classical age of the Mediterranean. It is part of a process Picasso seems to have been going through to extract the essence of the Classical past for his modernist age, to reinvent it for a world post A-bomb, post-Holocaust, post-Guernica, post-mechanisation and industrialisation, to use it to reconnect with the Simple Pleasures and the world of light.
The scene is centred on the family, with a nuclear family of the average 2 point whatever kids cavorting on the beach. The colours are the muted earth colours of Mediterranean pottery, a not too distant relation of the five earthy colours of ancient Egyptian tomb art which were picked up by Bridget Riley in the late 80s (I was fortunate to attend a lecture by her in Cambridge in about 1986 when she talked through her process of adopting that ancient palette, then I saw them for real in tombs along the Nile to Aswan the following decade).
At the centre of the picture is a woman with big knockers. So far, so Picasso. She’s suitably distorted/multi-angled though well beyond the Cubism – she’s Cubist plus 1920s Classical phase plus a sprinkle of Blue Period, all simplified towards Klee territory. Not only are those big bazookas symmetrical but so are her legs and locks so she is very much the centre line of the composition. To her left are the kids (literally – half goat) and a musician with ancient Greek pipe thingies – again, child-like in Klee style, fat fingers and circle head. To her right is a musical centaur, perhaps the Great Man himself in his combination of animal passion and artistic sensitivity. With his bestial four legs he’s that bit smaller than the woman. But it’s all pretty tension free, music, dancing, Mediterranean fun and frolics at the seaside. Those two vertical halves are divided into thirds horizontally – land / sea / sky – dominated by blues which are the hues of peace and infinity. The earth and ocean are a collagy style of painting, direct descendants of his Cubism. The sky is dominated by a classic sail boat in Vermeer blue and yellow. It’s pretty big in the greater scheme of things and for me represents Picasso’s escape route and back-of-the-mind sense that fun and family, luxury and high life by the Med are all well and good, but he has other stuff to go out and explore…
I’m finishing writing this post a couple of weeks later back in London with a print of Guernica as reimagined by Pure Evil on the wall behind me. As far as that Paphos beach is from this North London suburb, so is this Joie de Vivre from the explosive hell of Guernica – separated by a monstrous war and yet in the forms and techniques, the animal imagery, the faceted design, they are not that far apart. Under a decade separates the two (9 years) – by road 9 hours or 900 kilometres (an almost straight line through San Sebastian, Bayonne, Toulouse, Montpelier, Nimes, Cannes; a gently undulating line like the horizon of the ocean in the painting). The son of a beach would really have had the feeling that time heals all wounds.
Guernica to Antibes
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