Picasso and the Ballets Russes

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Picasso’s costume design for “Le Tricorne” (1919-1920)

Pablo Picasso and the Ballets Russes collaborated on several productions. Pablo Picasso’s Cubist sets and costumes were used by Diaghiliev in the Ballets Russes's Parade (1917, choreography: Massine), Le Tricorne, otherwise known as The Three-Cornered Hat (1919, choreography: Massine), Pulcinella (1920, choreographer: Massine), and Cuadro Flamenco (1921, choreography: Spanish folk dancers). Picasso also drew a sketch with pen on paper of La Boutique Fantastique (1919, choreography: Massine).[1] and designed the drop curtain for Le Train Bleu (ballet) (1924, choreography: Nijinska), based on his “Two Women Running along the Beach” (1922).[2] The idea for the set design of Parade came from the decorations at a small vaudeville theater in Rome as well as the décor of the Teatro dei Piccoli, a marionette theater. The original model was crafted in a cardboard box. Picasso realized immediately that he liked using vivid colors for his sets and costumes because they registered so well from the audience. Unfortunately, though, while the sets, costumes and music by Erik Satie were well received by critics, the ballet in general was panned when it first premiered and played for only two performances. When it was revived in 1920, however, Diaghilev said, "Parade is my best bottle of wine. I do not like to open it too often." [3]

Picasso’s costume design for “Pulcinella” (1920)
Scene from "La Boutique Fantastique" drawn by Picasso (1919)
Picasso's painting Olga in the Armchair (1917)

Picasso's sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes are now considered symbols of “the progressive art of their time, and [they] have only become more celebrated and better appreciated over the past century.” [4] Nevertheless, according to his biographer, John Richardson, “Picasso’s Cubist followers were horrified that their hero should desert them for the chic, elitist Ballets Russes.“ [5] It was the onset of WWI that prompted him to leave Paris and live in Rome, where the Ballets Russes rehearsed. He also was recovering from two failed love affairs at this time. Soon after he arrived in Rome, however, he met ballerina Olga Khokhlova, and married her in 1918. He remained married to her until her death in 1955, although they separated by the late 1920s.[6] He also became friends with Massine while in Rome; they were both interested in Spanish themes, women, and modern art. Picasso also became friends with Stravinsky during this time, though he found Diaghilev to be possessive and did not become close with him. Picasso was even quoted as saying that he "felt a desperate need to travel back to the land of human beings" after spending time with Diaghilev. Diaghilev, however, valued Picasso's work and the drop curtain he created for Le Train Bleu - the painting of which was completed not by Picasso, but by Prince Alexander Schervashidze - was deemed so impressive that Diaghilev used it as the logo for the Ballets Russes.[7]

The writer Jean Cocteau, who introduced Picasso to Diaghilev,[8] wrote the scenario for Parade, and was Picasso’s neighbor in Rome said, “Picasso amazes me every day, to live near him is a lesson in nobility and hard work…A badly drawn figure of Picasso is the result of endless well-drawn figures he erases, corrects, covers over, and which serves him as a foundation. In opposition to all schools he seems to end his work with a sketch.” Additionally, Guillaume Apollinaire, who wrote the program notes for Parade, described Picasso’s designs as “a kind of surrealism” (une sorte de surréalisme) three years before Surrealism developed as an art movement in Paris.[9]

Other Theater Work

In 1924, Picasso designed the sets and costumes for Massine’s Mercure, which was produced not by Diaghilev, but by Comte Étienne de Beaumont with music by Satie.[10] Picasso did not design for the theater again until 1946, when he did the curtain design for Roland Petit's Le Rendez-vous at the Ballets des Champs-Élysées.[11]

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