This masterpiece is among the largest and most complex paintings from Picasso's Blue Period, dating from 1901 to 1904. Painted in Barcelona, La Vie remains one of the key works in the prodigious output of paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture, and pottery of this dominant visual artist of the twentieth century.
La Vie is set in an artist's studio, containing vague suggestions of cloistered architecture. A nude woman clings to the male figure, dressed only in a white loincloth, who points toward the heavily draped woman holding a sleeping baby. Between these groups are two canvases, stacked one on top of the other, in the beginning stages of development and only outlined. In the upper one, two clinging nudes look out hopelessly; in the other, the figure rests its head on drawn-up knees. Picasso made four preparatory sketches for this painting, changing the figures in the composition at least twice. The cloaked female figure was initially a bearded male. The male figure, which began as a self-portrait, ended as a portrait of Picasso's late friend Carlos Casagemas, who had committed suicide after being cruelly rejected by a lover.
The painting is clearly allegorical, as well as unusually complex and obscure for Picasso's early work. Scholars have not reached a consensus concerning the narrative, which has frequently been discussed in print but never explained by the artist. Picasso's painting projects a pessimistic outlook, expressed not only in the symbolism of the figures but also in its desolate, cold, blue tones. During his Blue Period, he often dealt with themes of misery and human destitution, and here his subject may allude to the responsibilities of everyday life, the incompatibility of sexual love, and the difficulties of artistic creativity.
The canvas's surface has numerous pentimenti. From X-ray photographs taken in 1976 at The Cleveland Museum of Art and through subsequent research, some of mysteries of the piece have been explained. In addition to the changes Picasso made while painting La Vie, a second painting was discovered beneath its surface that appears to be the lost work, The Last Moments (or The Moribund). Elements identified in the radiographs--a nude female reclining on a bed, a bedside table with an open drawer supporting a lighted lamp, a priest, and a winged creature with a human body and the head of a bird--resemble the description of a large canvas that was the key painting in Picasso's first exhibition in Barcelona and at the Paris World Exhibition in 1900.
Picasso’s attention soon shifted from the creation of social and quasi-religious allegories to an investigation of space, volume, and perception, culminating in the invention of Cubism. His portrait Fernande with a Black Mantilla is a transitional work. Still somewhat expressionistic and romantic, with its subdued tonality and lively brushstrokes, the picture depicts his mistress Fernande Olivier wearing a mantilla, which perhaps symbolizes the artist’s Spanish origins. The iconic stylization of her face and its abbreviated features, however, foretell Picasso’s increasing interest in the abstract qualities and solidity of Iberian sculpture, which would profoundly influence his subsequent works. Though naturalistically delineated, the painting presages his imminent experiments with abstraction.
Circus performers were regarded as social outsiders, poor but independent. As such, they provided a telling symbol for the alienation of avant-garde artists such as Picasso. Indeed, it has been suggested that the Family of Saltimbanques serves as an autobiographical statement, a covert group portrait of Picasso and his circle.
Picasso reworked the Family of Saltimbanques several times, adding figures and altering the composition. The figures occupy a desolate landscape and although Picasso has knit them together in a carefully balanced composition, each figure is psychologically isolated from the others, and from the viewer. In his rose, or circus period, Picasso moved away from the extreme pathos of his earlier blue period, but in the Family of Saltimbanques, the masterpiece of the circus period, a mood of introspection and sad contemplation prevails.
This scene of fairground performers was Picasso's most significant work to date. The name of the painting comes from the Italian words saltare, meaning "to leap," and banco, "bench," which refers to the stage on which the acrobats usually performed. Saltimbanques were the lowest order of acrobats; Picasso pictured them as vagabonds with simple props in an empty, desertlike landscape. He was familiar with earlier representations of clowns and harlequins from eighteenth-century art, which frequently included figures from the commedia dell'arte, a popular theatrical form featuring stock characters and their antics. These characters played significant roles in the paintings of such artists as Tiepolo, the Le Nain, and Watteau.
Picasso's painting was inspired by a group of performers he and his colleagues befriended at the Cirque Medrano, which had quarters near the artist's Paris studio in Montmartre. Picasso was particularly drawn to the circus people, many of whom were his Spanish countrymen. Their agility and pursuit of the art of illusion delighted him, and their gypsylike lives touched the artist, who himself searched for new horizons.
Picasso identified most closely with the clowns, those performers who masked their true selves with costumes and makeup. In fact, Picasso portrayed himself as the harlequin in a diamond-patterned costume in Family of Saltimbanques. The jester and the acrobats are lost in their own thoughts and glance toward the woman, who sits alone, while the harlequin reaches out to the child behind his back. In his deft representations of the various figures, Picasso manages to portray not only the lifestyle of the real saltimbanques but also the apparent melancholy mood of his friends and the collective alienation of this group.
Picasso's huge canvas was a considerable investment for the struggling artist and may explain why he repainted the subject at least four times, one on top of the other. X-radiography reveals the figures positioned differently in earlier versions. Some of Picasso's changes, including the woman's shoulders and hat, the color of the child's ballet slippers, the red jester's missing leg, and the harlequin's top hat, emerge as ghostlike outlines (pentimenti) in the final painting.
Pablo PICASSO, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon ou Le Bordel philosophique ou Le Bordel d'Avignon, juin-juillet 1907, 243,9 X 233,7, New York, Museum of Modern Art
Gallery label text
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon is one of the most important works in the genesis of modern art. The painting depicts five naked prostitutes in a brothel; two of them push aside curtains around the space where the other women strike seductive and erotic poses—but their figures are composed of flat, splintered planes rather than rounded volumes, their eyes are lopsided or staring or asymmetrical, and the two women at the right have threatening masks for heads. The space, too, which should recede, comes forward in jagged shards, like broken glass. In the still life at the bottom, a piece of melon slices the air like a scythe.
The faces of the figures at the right are influenced by African masks, which Picasso assumed had functioned as magical protectors against dangerous spirits : this work, he said later, was his "first exorcism painting." A specific danger he had in mind was life-threatening sexual disease, a source of considerable anxiety in Paris at the time ; earlier sketches for the painting more clearly link sexual pleasure to mortality. In its brutal treatment of the body and its clashes of color and style (other sources for this work include ancient Iberian statuary and the work of Paul Cézanne), Les Demoiselles d'Avignon marks a radical break from traditional composition and perspective.