PARIS.- In tandem with the exhibition Picasso and the Masters at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, the Musée d’Orsay is presenting around forty paintings, drawings, engravings and models produced by Picasso between 1954 and 1962, and inspired by Manet’s, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe [The Luncheon on the Grass]. The Musée du Louvre, for its part, is showing the variations on Delacroix’s Algerian Women [Femmes d’Alger]. This is the first time these three great Parisian institutions have come together with the Réunion des Musées Nationaux to try and reconstitute Picasso’s artistic pantheon.
As soon as he arrived in Paris, Picasso used the Louvre, as he had previously used the Prado, as one of the main sources for his creative work. Throughout his life, from his formal apprenticeship to the later years, including the Cubist revolution and his Neo-classical period, Picasso took inspiration from the paintings of the past.
In the 50s, he started a cycle of variations of the works of the masters: Delacroix, Velasquez and Manet, and also, although less systematically, of Poussin, Cranach, David, Le Nain, Courbet, etc. It was a way for him to compare his own pictorial language with the great masterpieces of painting, to renew the genre of quotation, and to confirm his power as a painter. This pictorial cannibalism has no equivalent in the history of art. His experiment with Manet’s painting is without doubt the most profound and most complex experiment that he ever undertook. The exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay brings together fourteen of the twenty-six Déjeuners sur l’herbe by Picasso, and also shows drawings, engravings, and the preparatory models for the Stockholm monument.
The sequence of the works, displayed chronologically, enables us to play with Picasso who in turn is playing with Manet and his Déjeuner. For although in 1932, he looked at Manet’s painting in anguish and wrote: “When I see the Déjeuner sur l’herbe I know this will give me trouble later”, in the end, Picasso took it on with joy and with a great feeling of freedom.
In 1954, he drew a faithful copy of Manet’s composition. Then, between February 1960 and August 1961, he produced twenty-six paintings which he showed at the Louise Leiris Gallery in 1962.
That year, he took the four characters created by Manet to create a monumental sculpture. Picasso took each of the questions Manet’s painting had provoked during its tumultuous presentation at the Salon des Refusés in 1863, made them his own and responded to them: the question of the nude, the absence of a subject, the plein air issue.
Thus the protagonists in Manet’s Déjeuner become actors in a small theatre which Picasso changes into a landscape which, when all is considered, is just a stage set. He exploits all the possibilities afforded to him by the “partie carrée” (foursome) of Manet’s imagination. The characters, women and men, are re-clothed or undressed. They move closer or further away. One reads, another smokes. One is speaking; another is picking a flower. Sometimes there are four, sometimes three...
Finally they are isolated, denuded, enlarged and left in the natural park setting of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Picasso is having fun and is emphasising the humour that Manet concealed behind his dandyism and his firm resolve to renew painting.