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Trois figures sous un arbre, 1907-8

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

Oil in canvas
99 x 99 cm
Musée national Picasso-Paris, París. Donated by
M. William Mac Carthy-Cooper, 1986
© Sucesión Pablo Picasso, VEGAP, Madrid, 2020

 

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Faces delimited by thick, curved lines; simple eyes in the shape of almonds; noses like narrow triangles… Features simplified to the extreme, in order to evoke the face of a human being without alluding to a specific identity. Faces, in short, like magical masks.

 

The comparison is not a casual one. In the search for fresh sources of inspiration unrelated to Western art, the ritual mask played a key role. Over the course of the 19th century, the European powers had engaged in the process of colonization beyond the geographical boundaries of their continent. One of the consequences of this process was the discovery of the creations of other cultures. A wide variety of statuary from Africa and Oceania arrived in Europe and was incorporated into the collections of ethnographic museums: however, despite their inclusion, they did not obtain the classification of works of art.

 

One of these museums was located in the Trocadero Palace in Paris. Picasso visited it for the first time in 1907, at the suggestion of André Derain. There, he found a wide range of objects from Africa and Oceania, which subsequently left their mark on his artistic production. The bold simplifications of form in the tribal pieces, the basic utensils and materials used in their creation, and their magical associations opened Picasso’s eyes to the possibility of achieving a comparable force in his own art.

 

Picasso recounted this encounter to the writer André Malraux in the following terms:

 

I was alone, I wanted to leave. But I didn’t go; I stayed. I stayed. I understood that it was very important (…) The masks did not look anything like the other sculptures. Not in the slightest. They were magical objects. (…) The pieces made by the blacks were intercessors, mediators. (…) They were against everything: against the unknown and threatening spirits. I simply observed the fetishes, and I understood: I was also against everything. I also believe that everything is unknown, that everything is an enemy! Everything!

 

In the exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Malaga-born artist played a central role for two reasons: one, because of the numerous works he loaned for the event; and two, because of the central position that was granted to him in the exhibition at the first premises occupied by the museum in New York.