II. Working for the Ballet
Picasso contributed to ten ballet productions, including six for the Ballets Russes. His involvement was sometimes limited to just a stage curtain, or instructions for making one - this is the case for example for Le Train bleu (1924) and Le Rendez-vous (1945). However, between 1917 and 1924, he was very actively involved in four major productions: Parade (1917), The Three-Cornered Hat (1919), Pulcinella (1920) and Mercure (1924), ballets for which he designed sets, costumes and stage curtains.
These creations coincided with Picasso moving away from the Cubist style. After a decade of systematic research, which took him from the Proto-Cubism of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) to Synthetic Cubism, he began to explore new directions. He started once again to produce naturalist drawings in 1915. Neo-classical and Cubist elements coexisted in Parade. Picasso continued to incorporate little touches of the Cubist style into his different creations, before replacing them with a first form of Surrealism in Mercure. As such, the artist's successive changes were reflected in the world of ballet.
From the 1970s onwards, some of these ballets were recreated by the Paris Opera. After Parade, recreated in 1979 on the occasion of a tribute to Erik Satie, The Three-Cornered Hat, Le Train bleu and Le Rendez-vous were all added to the Opera repertoire in 1992. Five of Picasso's ballets – including Icare, in a new production created at the Palais Garnier in 1962 – currently feature in the institution's repertoire.
Pablo Picasso (d'après), Le Tricorne : maquette du décor définitif (1919)planche issue du portf. : Trente-deux reproductions de maquettes en couleursd'après les originaux des costumes et décors par Picasso pour le ballet Le TricorneParis, P. Rosenbe © Succession Picasso 2018
Pablo Picasso (d’après)Étude de décor pour le ballet Pulcinella [ca. 1920]Procédé Jacomet (gouache appliquée au pochoir sur impression phototypique)BnF, Bibliothèque-musée de l’Opéra © Succession Picasso 2018
Scène de la confrontation entre Mercure (Léonide Massine)et Apollon (Boris Lissanevitch), Mercure [Photographe non identifié], © BnF, Bibliothèque-musée de l’Opéra
In 1924, Diaghilev and Cocteau created Le Train bleu. Upon request, Picasso agreed for one of his paintings to be reproduced as a stage curtain. At the same time, Count Étienne de Beaumont launched a competing project. For his "Soirées de Paris", he put together a team formed of Satie, Massine and Picasso, to whom he commissioned a ballet based on the god Mercury.
Picasso had carte blanche. Moving away from Cubism, he created surrealist "plastic poses" - the Three Graces appeared in drag, and some characters were represented by mobile sculptures. The artist also explored a new technique, based on continuous lines - this style, known as "calligraphic" or "curvilinear", would feed into his work in the following years.
When Mercure premiered on 15 June, 1924, a group of Dadaists led by André Breton and Louis Aragon initiated a cabal targeting Satie and Beaumont. A few days later, however, they painted a complimentary portrait of Picasso in the press - his last major ballet thus marked his entry into surrealism.
Attilio Labis dans le rôle-titre d’IcarePalais Garnier, Paris, 1962BnF, Bibliothèque-musée de l’Opéra © Roger Pic/ BnF
In 1962, Serge Lifar was invited by the Paris Opera to recreate his ballet Icare. The plot he composed was inspired by Greek mythology - with the wings made by his father Daedalus, Icarus launches himself into the air, but intoxicated by the act of flying, he goes too close to the sun, the wax of his wings melts and he falls into the sea. Created in 1935, the ballet was a manifesto where the dancing was choreographed separately from the music. In addition to the choreography, Lifar was in charge of the "rhythms" that accompany it, orchestrated by Arthur Honegger.
For this reproduction, the former dancer designed new costumes himself and suggested to his friend Picasso, whom he had met through the Ballets Russes in the 1920s, that he create the set and stage curtain. Picasso had not worked on any more ballets since 1924, with the exception of a curtain for Roland Petit's Le Rendez-vous (1945), based on an existing design. The artist nevertheless agreed to design this new piece - he provided Lifar with a sketch reminiscent of another "fall of Icarus", that of the fresco he painted in 1958 for the UNESCO headquarters.
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