Cultivating the seeds planted by Paul Cézanne and his treatment of nature “by the sphere, the cylinder and the cone”, Pablo Picasso’s Tête epitomises crucial explorations in the painter’s practise of the period and in 20th century art history. Himself working in French bucolic surroundings in close collaboration with acolyte George Braque during the summer of 1911, Picasso somewhat leaves his primitivism behind and reaches what Carl Einstein has described as “a period of analysis and fragmentation and finally a period of synthesis”. Opening up the delimitations of his objects and subjects, the painter develops the cubist syntax of fragmentation, condensation in multiple viewpoints and representation of the world in overlapping geometrical planes.
Tête thus emerges in this crucial year of 1911 on the fantastic avant-garde stage that is the Bateau-Lavoir, Picasso’s studio at 13 Rue Ravignan in Paris. The key features of Analytic Cubism are here in full bloom, albeit in simpler means than in the painter’s otherwise busy compositions of the same period. Characteristically, Picasso verges here on complete abstraction by means of shifting geometrical planes while yet giving the viewer tiny clues loosely anchoring us to representation, to the external world. Not the least of those clues is of course the referential title – Tête (head) – but also the circles crossed by lines and the larger triangular plane as eyes and nose etching the premises of a face. Also typical of Picasso and Braque’s Analytic Cubism is the almost monochromatic muted palette, here in shades of earthy ochre. The indeterminate background lets some vibrating – almost shimmering – brush-strokes puncture the flatness of the picture surface. They penetrate the shapes left open in a merging of boundaries, a negation of interior and exterior and of depth and perspective where three dimensions are simultaneously laid down on the picture plane. The composition is also given rhythm by patches of light and dark but one cannot however speak of shadows per se because of the absence of a single, naturalistic source of light.
The present work is representative of a momentous in Picasso’s – and interdependently in Braque’s – cubist experimentations, placing itself right in the bull’s eye of what Clement Greenberg later described as “the unbroken progression towards the compression of pictorial space, beginning with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and ending with the 1912 invention of collage”. Featuring a key subject matter (see below), Tête also relates to the immense importance of portraiture in the practice of the artist whose treatment of the human face has redefined the genre and stands as a testament to one of the most ground-breaking artistic development of the art of the twentieth century.
– Emilie C.