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1928-1932 Metamorphosis and Abstraction

Although Picasso never officially joined the Surrealist movement, he did share many of its ideas and incorporated Surrealist elements, such as transformed and distorted figures, in his works. During the 1930s, settled at Boisgeloup, he focused primarily on sculpture.

“I always aim at the resemblance. An artist should observe nature but never confuse it with painting. It is only translatable into painting by signs. But such signs are not invented. To arrive at the sign, you have to concentrate hard on the resemblance. To me, surreality is nothing, and has never been anything but this profound resemblance, something deeper than the forms and the colors in which objects present themselves.”

[Brassaï. Picasso and Company, 1966, pp. 162-163]

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In 1931 Picasso modelled several bathers in plaster, an already familiar subject within his pictorial imagery and one associated here with Marie-Thérèse, an excellent swimmer according to different witnesses. Upright and in movement, the bathers echo the agile dancers of Edgar Degas, whose bronzes Picasso discovered in July at the exhibition Degas: portraitiste sculpteur at the Musée de l’Orangerie. Stretched out on a sandbank, arms arching above her head, the Reclining Bather has more of a rapport with Francisco de Goya’s La Maja desnuda (prior to 1800) and with the recumbent nudes of Henri Matisse, whose sculptures the Galerie Pierre had brought together the year before. The bather’s arabesque outline consists of four independently modelled visual units, knitted together in two places, from which the sculpture as a whole emanates: the junction between the torso and the hips, prolonged by the thighs; and that of the head around which pivot the arms in an arabesque and before which the breasts stand up proudly.

As indicated in the drawings dating from August and September which pre-empt the modelling, the circular arc described by the arms above the head is balanced by the roundness of the torso and the horizontality of the legs. To construct his figure Picasso conceived each element structuring the body both individually and in a modular way. The masses modelled in white plaster evoke bones. As he confided to Brassaï years later apropos of ‘the white skeleton of a bat, attached to a black support, in the attitude of crucifixion’, Picasso admits to having ‘a real passion for bones’: ‘I have many others in Boisgeloup: skeletons of birds, dog’s and sheep’s heads. I even have a rhinoceros skull. [...] Have you noticed that bones are always modeled and not carved, that you always have the impression they come from a mold, that they were first modeled in clay? Any bone you look at, you always find fingerprints on it. [...] The fingerprints of the god who amused himself fashioning them – I can see them on any bone whatsoever.’

The asperity of the plaster reveals the nuances of the modelling: an abrupt cutting of the surfaces, nicks made by a knife in the facial details, a smoothing of the rounded parts and the roughness of the material. A diversity in the surface that renders the figure vibrant and desirable and which corroborates the sinusoidal rhythm of the posture. Although the small head begs comparison with the Venus of Lespugue, discovered in the Pyrenees in 1922, two casts of which Picasso acquired, the presence in the studio of a copy of a Greek statue, draped in a long peplos, underlines the influence of antiquity and beyond that the entire history of painting in which the motif of a recumbent Venus constitutes the classic subject par excellence. Following Titian, Goya, Manet and Matisse, Picasso co-opts and renews the depiction of this eternal subject. Photographed by Brassaï in the Boisgeloup studio in December 1932, the sculpture was not reproduced in the number of Minotaure published a few months later, nor in the special ‘Picasso: 1930–1935’ number of Cahiers d’art published in 1936, notwithstanding the fact that this is rich in works from Boisgeloup. A bronze version of Reclining Bather was revealed to the public in the catalogue of sculptures that Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler published in 1949 with Éditions du Chêne: facing two standing Bathers, robust and masculine-looking, she is bursting with melodic sensuality.

Text: Cécile Godefroy “Reclining Bather”. In Catalogue Pablo Picasso. New Collection 2017-2020, pp. 188-189

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Picasso never trained as a sculptor, which is perhaps why he soon realized that “modelling the truth” of a human being is a difficult task. Throughout his life, he very rarely agreed to publicly display the wide variety of sculptural responses he had to this problem. It was a long time before society was to discover the wealth and complexity of his sculptural work. They provide testimony once again of his uncompromising creative freedom.

In the spring of 1931, he moved from his Paris home to a peaceful aristocratic house he renovated in Boisgeloup. Here, he initiated a new project focused on making sculptures in plaster. It was at this point that he made this reclining bather. He appears to have been interested in exploring the possibilities of representing desire, and the voluptuousness of a woman who is offering herself, using the Surrealists’ formulas for expressing a beauty which they claimed was neither Classical nor ideal.  They argued that what appears to us to be unfinished, distorted and disjointed, and which we find unsettling, in reality depicts a more truthful, convulsed, unknown and liberated kind of beauty.

 (PICASSO) “Nature and art, being different things, can never be the same. We express with art our idea of that which is not nature”.

It might therefore be said that this plaster figure expresses the artist’s internal gaze at an imagined model. This act of freedom allows him to reach beyond the formal boundaries of traditional sculpture. The structure of this sensual body – which is inspired by that of the athlete and swimmer who was his partner at that time, Marie Thérèse Walter - is made by combining mobile elements, which have been distorted to create an elongated, undulating figure that looks both muscular and dismembered. It is reminiscent of Paleolithic fertility carvings. It has been said that by creating the piece in this way, the ever-skilful and surprising Picasso solved two problems in one sculpture. The bather at rest is both the shadow of a dream and the image of a body.