Sunday, 20 September 2009
Pablo Gargallo is often described as ‘Cubist’ sculptor, partly thanks to his signature technique of hollowing out or reversing volumes, and partly due to his links with Picasso, one of the two undoubted inventors of Cubism. In the strict sense, the idea of Cubist sculpture is an oxymoron. Despite its undoubted early links to the African tribal sculptures that partly inspired Picasso’s transition to a new and radical style, Cubism was essentially an attempt to find a better and more complete way of representing forms on a flat surface, springing off as much from experiments already made by Cézanne than it did from anything African.
If one looks carefully at Gargallo’s development what one sees, I think, is a very different story, with complex links to developments in early 20th century culture which have little to do with orthodox Cubism or indeed with Africa, though certainly something to do with Picasso, whose work and career had an inescapable an inescapable allure for every artist who ventured within his personal orbit.
One of the most striking things about Gargallo’s production, looked at as a totality, is its obsession with the idea of masks and making. His signature sculpture – the piece that everyone knows best – was made quite late in his life. It is the portrait head [which in fact is more like a mask] of Kiki de Montparnasse, created in 1928, shortly after Gargallo had moved from Spain to live permanently in Paris. Kiki, born Alice Ernestine Prin [1901-1953], was a nightclub singer, actress, artists’ model and painter who seemed to her contemporaries to sum up the carefree spirit of bohemian Paris in the 1920s. She posed for many leading artists, among them the photographer Man Ray, who made an image that compares her torso to a violin, Moise Kisling and the Franco-Japanese artist Tsuguharu Foujita.
Gargallo turns her into the epitome of 1920s high fashion, with bobbed hair and an enigmatically smiling cupid’s bow mouth. His expert stylization of the typical ‘flapper’ look of the period recalls the drawings of great Art Deco fashion illustrator Georges Barbier [1882-1932].
Gargallo was not the first major Modernist sculptor to make high fashion part of his inspiration. He was preceded in this by Constantin Brancusi [1876-1957], whose equally chic Mademoiselle Pogany dates, in its first version, from 1912.
If one traces the ancestry of Kiki within the development of Gargallo’s own sculpture, one finds that it forms part of a long and complex story. The first relevant piece in this exhibition is the Pequeña máscara con mechón , which is one of the very few sculptures in Gargallo’s oeuvre that show traces of African influence, since the basic form is taken from a Dan mask. It was created in Paris, during Gargallo’s second visit to the city, at a time when the artist had just felt the impact of Picasso’s revolutionary work of the same epoch – Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was completed in 1907.
The Pequeña mascara was followed by a whole series of other masks in metal – for instance, the Joven de pelo rizado , the Pequeña máscara de perfil [c.1911] and the Máscara di Magali . The series also includes a number of mask-like heads. One striking thing about these sculptures, however, is their distance from any known African model and their often striking resemblance to dance masks from Mexico, which may in turn have been influenced by the long-established European tradition of the commedia dell’ arte. This is especially the case with some mask-like heads of the period that contain a strong element of caricature. An example is La Riza, of c. 1915. In these Gargallo seems to be referring to an entirely non-African tradition of popular art.
It is the hollowed out nature of masks – their lack of solidity - that seems to have led Gargallo towards substituting negative volumes for the expected positive forms. The first tentative steps towards this appear in sculptures made in the early 1920s, such as the Pequeño marinero con pipa and the Maternidad, both of which date from 1922. It has to be said that in these works, the hollowing out of the forms seems to be only superficially related to the main shape of the sculpture. It appears more successfully in the Mujer acostada of the following year, where the swelling forms of a reclining female nude are wittily rendered through a series of linked concavities.
At this period Gargallo oscillates in style between the revived classicism that attracted many leading artists at this time, among them Picasso himself, though more frequently in paintings and in graphic work than in sculptures, and images that are much more experimental in style. Some works from this phase, such as the Durmiente  seem to be related to the sculptures that the great Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir [1841-1919] produced during the final years of his life, with the assistance of the Catalan sculptor Richard Guino, who had been a pupil of Maillol.
In the mid-1920s Gargallo embarked on a much more experimental phase, which continued until the end of his career, producing figurative sculptures made up of interlocking metal shapes, with the negative volumes now strongly emphasized. The radical formal originality of these works has tended to attract much more attention than either their subject-matter, or their relationship to the European culture of the time. Basically Gargallo covers a fairly narrow range of subjects. There are ballerinas, wearing the traditional tutu. There are harlequins and pierrots, from the commedia del’arte, a couple of self-portraits, a picador from the bullfight and two versions of a Máscara de star [1926-7]. These have a striking resemblance to publicity photographs of Theda Bara, Hollywood’s first vamp, and this may be Gargallo’s source, though Theda’s career was more or less over by the end of 1919. Later, in 1930-31, Gargallo was to make some images of another star, Greta Garbo. 1930 was the year in which Garbo was seen in Anna Christie, her first ‘talkie’, based on the play by Eugene O’Neill.
The personages of the commedia dell’arte were already part of Picasso’s personal mythology. He first focused on them during his Rose Period of 1904-6. The masterpiece of this time is the famous Family of Saltimbanques, now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. The painting is often interpreted as a statement about the role of the artist as social outsider. In a softer, less melancholy mood, Picasso was to revert to the theme on later occasions, He painted his son Paul as a Harlequin in 1924, and as a Pierrot in 1925. These paintings are contemporary with Gargallo’s sculptural exploration of the same subject matter.
The really significant factor in this context is not so much the link to Picasso as the fact that the commedia and its characters were part of the core subject matter of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The company burst upon the Parisian scene in May 1909, and thereafter, until Diaghilev’s death in 1929, were at the very centre of avant-garde creation. The aristocratic poet Anna de Noailles described the effect that this new entertainment made on her:
“No one thought that in the realm of art that there might be something utterly new under the sun when, in instant splendor, there appeared the phenomenon of the Ballets Russes.
In the spring of 1909, every capital in Europe had a Ballets Russes première. I attended the one in Paris. It was as if the creation of the world had added something to its seventh day. When I entered the loge to which I had been invited – and I arrived a little late, for I had not believed the several initiates who promised me a revelation – I understood that I was witnessing a miracle. I was seeing something that had never before existed. Everything that dazzles, intoxicates and seduces us had been conjured up and drawn onto the stage, there to flower as naturally, as perfectly as the plant world attains its magnificence under the influence of the climate.”[i]
Though Gargallo never made designs for Diaghilev, some of his closest associates did, among them Picasso and Juan Gris, who introduced Gargallo to his future wife, Magali. It is inconceivable that the artist remained unaware of this phenomenon. Indeed everything about his development indicates that he kept in close touch with what the company was doing, on visits to Paris, and after he eventually settled there for good in 1924.
During the First World War the Ballets Russes, hard pressed for money, kept itself going by touring in Spain, and some of its typical later creations, such as The Three Cornered Hat  with music by Manuel de Falla and sets and costumes by Picasso, were inspired by Spanish culture.
What has perhaps served to conceal the link between Gargallo’s work and the world of the Ballets Russes is that he clearly preferred the company’s more traditional offerings. Basically one can divide Diaghilev’s ballets into five or six different groups. There are the productions, mostly early, that relied on exoticism for their impact – they include Cléopatre, Firebird and Shéhérazade. These clearly had no appeal for Gargallo, who seems to have been indifferent to exoticism of any kind. There are the extreme avant-garde manifestations, such as Parade  and the late ballets with Constructivist sets – La Chatte, with a set by the Russian sculptors Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner, and Le Pas d’Acier [both 1927]. These avant-garde ballets had already pressed experimentation so far that there was little that Gargallo could transform for his own sculptural purposes, though one at least of Picasso’s designs for Parade – for a young acrobat[ii] - does seem to anticipate Gargallo’s use of sweeping cut out forms to create sculptural figures of dancers.
Another category consisted of ballets based on a subtly transformed version of the 18th century, often with commedia dell’ arte references – an example is Pulcinella. Premiered in Paris in May 1920, this remained sufficiently up-to-the-minute to cause a scandal in 1924, when the Ballets Russes brought it to Barcelona. Diaghilev, like many St Petersburg intellectuals of his generation, also had a nostalgic liking for the then no-so-distant Biedermeier culture of the early 19th century. A good instance of this is the beautiful early ballet Le Carneval , with choreography by Michel Fokine and music by Schumann, orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov. This contained a major role for the great dancer Vaslav Nikinsky as a harlequin, and it is worth citing Jean Cocteau’s description of his performance:
“Desire, mischief, self-satisfaction, arrogance, rapid bobbings of his head, and still other things, but especially a way of peering out from under the visor of the cap he wore pulled down over his eyebrows, the way one shoulder was raised higher than the other and his cheek pressed against it, the way the right hand was outstretched, the leg pressed to relax, such – and it was never before granted me to see or hear at the theatre – such was Vaslav Nijinsky in Carneval, surrounded by an uninterrupted roar of applause.”[iii]
The resemblance between Cocteau’s pen portrait and Gargallo’s sculptures of harlequins is striking.
Diaghilev was also a lover of ballet in its grandest and most traditional form. He almost bankrupted himself with his sumptuous but ill-fated production of Sleeping Beauty, presented in London in 1921. Gargallo clearly shared this taste. While most of his full length sculptures of ballerinas show them wearing short tutus, a few show them in the longer skirts known as tutus à la Taglioni – a reference to the great 19th century ballerina Maria Taglioni [1804-1884], who left an indelible mark on ballet in Russia, though she danced there for only two years. A beautiful drawing by Gargallo dated 1930 – that is, the year after Diaghilev’s death – evokes the Taglioni style perfectly. It is almost certainly an elegiac reminiscence, not something drawn on the spot. 1930 was not a good year for ballet. .Diaghilev died broke, the physical assets of his company – sets and costumes – were seized by his creditors and his dancers immediately scattered. The main successor company, the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, was not founded until 1932.
If one concedes that an obvious major source for Gargallo’s most original work has until now remained unidentified, how does this affect one’s assessment of his career? In many ways it makes his work much easier to understand and fit into the general pattern of early 20th century visual culture. It also, despite Picasso’s own close links to the Ballets Russes, makes him seem more independent of this rather overwhelming mentor.
Diaghilev’s enterprise did not simply have an impact on artists. Indeed, its effect on practitioners of ‘high art’ – painting and sculpture – was relatively negligible. Gargallo can be seen as exceptional, in having made such good use of the material it offered. One reason, perhaps, that he was equipped to do this was that he was, from the early years of his career, concerned with making decorations and sculptural adornments for places of entertainment. In 1907 he made bas-reliefs for the Teatro el Bosque on the Ramblas; in 1909 he made sculptures for the Palácio de la Música in Barcelona, and in 1916 he returned to the Teatro el Bosque to make four sculptural groups, one of which symbolized the commedia dell’ arte.
Where the Ballets Russes did have an enormous influence was in channeling avant-garde ideas into the mainstream. It changed ideas about everyday objects, decoration and dress. In particular, Diaghilev’s enterprise contributed much to the creation of the worldwide style we now know as Art Deco. This takes its name from the great Arts Décoratifs exhibition staged in Paris in 1925 – Gargallo was an exhibitor. Long before this, however, he had been making work which was Art Deco in spirit, long before the exhibition was held or the term itself was invented. An example is the Cabeza inclinada de mujer already mentioned, which dates from 1908. Gargallo’s use of reversed volumes – his chief technical innovation in sculpture is in essence a decorative device. It allows him, for example, to offer a witty, slyly economical commentary fashions in appearance – this is what the head of Kiki is about – it is not really the portrait of an individual but is, rather, the representation of a type - also the various versions of the Máscara de star and the images of Greta Garbo, which are reflections of a legend rather than portraits of an individual. That this, they have the same relationship to their subject as Andy Warhol’s portraits of Marilyn Monroe. Like Warhol’s Marilyns, they were quite certainly generated from publicity photographs. There is no evidence that Gargallo ever encountered Garbo is real life.
Gargallo clearly saw society as a kind of masquerade, where individuals adopt masks that both reveal and conceal who they are. This quality emerges clearly from the portraits of Picasso, which are among his best-known works. People who met Picasso often commented on the piercing quality of his gaze, and the forms of Gargallo’s portrait, with one eye half-concealed by the subject’s hair and the other glaring out at the spectator, are designed to emphasize this mesmeric quality, as is the twist of the lips. Yet the portrait also tells us that this is a man who is presenting a façade, behind which a more complex self remains hidden.
There is a resemblance here to some of the portraits painted by Tamara de Lempicka, which a similarly simplified and mask-like.
The idea of masquerades and masquerading became fundamental to the culture of the 1920s, where a society still reeling from the shock of the First World War attempted to comfort itself with frivolous pleasures. Nevertheless I would be the last person to suggest that Gargallo is in any way a frivolous or lightweight artist. As his more classical work – which I have not discussed here – tends to demonstrate, he was an artist who, like many others of his generation, was trying to reconcile the ‘old’ values of classicism with the idea of the Modern.
This split is only fully healed in the Gran profeta , the final outcome of a concept he had been struggling with throughout his professional life. The first sketches date from 1904. They show that the original image in the artist’s mind was that of a St John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness. A good parallel is the painting of this subject by El Greco, dating from c. 1600 and now in the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco. Here the saint wears a rudimentary garment that is very similar to the one shown in the drawings and also carries a staff. However the vehement gesture of the right arm is missing – Greco’s saint uses his right hand to clutch the animal skin around himself. A somewhat similar, though gentler, gesture can however be seen in Titian’s version of the same subject, painted c. 1540, and now in the Accademia in Venice. This may have supplied El Greco with a model.
Over the years Gargallo developed this image into the impressive work we see now, using his void-for-solid idiom to its fullest. In doing so, perhaps paradoxically, he moved the image towards classicism – the figure now has a kind of structural coherence that makes one think of Greek works of the late 5th and early 4th centuries b.c. In other words, one tends to read the figure, not as a Christian image, but as an angry Zeus or Neptune. The anger is restrained by the decorative quality of the figure – one notes, for example, the frilled edge of what is now more like a stole than an actual garment.
Spain in the 1930s produced two absolutely major sculptures, which seem to go beyond the usual range of their respective authors. One is this and the other in the standing Montserrat of Julio Gonzalez, dating from 1936-7 and now in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Gonzalez’s sculpture is easy to interpret – it is a response to the Civil War in Spain. The Gran Profeta was conceived, and in all essentials completed, before the Civil War broke out. It seems now to be an unintended warning, something that arose directly from the artist;s unconscious. It fascinates and it puzzles, both at the same time.
[i] Quoted in Boris Kochno, Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, London 1971, p.31.
[ii] Illustrated in Kochno, op. cit., p.117
[iii] Quoted in Kochno, op. cit., p.41.
This site was last updated 20-09-2009