PARIS.- Coinciding with the major exhibition Picasso and his Masters held at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, the Louvre (Denon Room) plays host to around 20 painted and graphic variations on Delacroixs masterpiece, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (1834), executed by Picasso in 1954-55. In tandem, the Musée dOrsay presents a series of variations on Manets Déjeuner sur lherbe (Luncheon on the Grass).
The Réunion des Musées Nationaux joins forces for the first time with the Musée dOrsay, the Louvre and the Musée Picasso in an attempt to reconstruct the artistic pantheon of the painter who, as soon as he arrived in Paris, used the Louvre, as he had previously used the Prado, as one of the essential sources of inspiration for his creative production.
Variation on a theme
Throughout his career, from his academic training to the last years of his life, via the Cubist revolution and his neoclassical period, Picasso drew on paintings of the past. In the 1950s, he painted three major series of variations on past masterpieces: Women of Algiers after Delacroix in 1954, Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour) after Velázquez in 1957, Le Déjeuner sur lherbe after Manet in 1960-61, as well as reinterpreting, more sporadically, themes used by Poussin, David, Le Nain, Courbet, etc. Thirteen years of his life were dedicated to these variations, which include over 250 paintings and countless drawings and engravings. This reworking of past masterpieces for his own personal reasons was not devoid of humour or irony. This sacrilegious determination to go beyond convention was the the Picassian empires final annexation. For him, it was a means of comparing his own pictorial language with some of paintings greatest masterpieces, of renewing the borrowing genre and measuring his own artistic potential.
In 1955, Picasso executed 15 paintings and numerous preparatory drawings after Delacroixs Women of Algiers in Their Apartment. The latter had, in fact, been able to visit a Muslim house in Algiers and was very impressed by the Arab women he had seen: Its magnificent! Its like in Homers time, he wrote in his journal. The reasons why Picasso chose to rework Delacroix and his Women of Algiers are legion, from the fortuitous resemblance between his new companion Jacqueline and the woman with the narguile, seated in profile, to Orientalisms legendary sensuality and voluptuousness, not forgetting the impact of real-life events, such as Matisses death in November 1955 hence this tribute to colour in the early months of the guerilla war for independence in Algeria. Picasso had in fact been thinking about Delacroix for years. In 1940, in Royan, he made drawings of the figures in the painting and the composition in a sketchbook, using the same palette as the artist. Then in June 1954, in another sketchbook, he made a faithful copy of Delacroixs Self-portrait (Louvre). In 1947, when Georges Salles suggested that he show a selection of his works in the Louvres Grande Galerie, he exhibited them beside the Delacroixs.
From Delacroix to Picasso
With each new study, Picasso changed the number of figures or their positions, pushing the seated woman over on her back to change her into a reclining nude, thus returning to the familiar theme of the sleeping woman with the seated woman. Sometimes his female forms were rounded arabesques; sometimes he forced their bodies into disciplined, angular forms. The last two versions are very different: one is monochrome, geometric and stylized (version M, 11 February 1955, private coll.); the other is an explosion of colour (version O, 14 February 1955, private coll.). The scintillating combinations of red, blue and bright yellow are a tribute to the Near East and, above all, a homage to Matisse. He bequeathed his odalisques to me, Picasso said to Daniel Henry Kahnweiler. Why shouldnt I inherit his friends, too? The artist had a whale of a time, transforming an intimate, languorous interior scene into a dynamic scene of joyously aggressive eroticism. The woman in the background sometimes turns into a phallus and melds into the curve of the Moorish window. Amidst this profusion, unity is created by the ceramic-like decorative criss-cross pattern into which the figures are inserted. This interior scene, which nears on voyeurism with its naked women and curtain, recalls The Harem (1906) and the Demoiselles dAvignon (1907). It enabled the artist to experiment with inserting a figure into a decorative background. Picasso used a given motif to explore various pictorial styles of expression, drawing on what he had learnt about simultaneity from Cubism, in which figures are represented from the front and in profile at the same time.
In the Denon Room, opposite Delacroixs Women of Algiers, the Louvre presents three small paintings (from the Hartford and San Francisco Museums and the Nahmad Gallery, London), four large compositions (Nahmad Gallery and private collections), two versions of Jacqueline in Turkish Costume (Centre Pompidou and private collection), as well as around ten preparatory drawings and two sketchbooks (Musée Picasso, Paris).