Dance means music, movement, expression, life, rhythm, and a myriad other things. Visiting the Opéra Garnier in Paris it’s impossible not to see the theatre as a temple to celebrate this art form. Amidst the general awe, I loved the breathtaking ceiling by Chagall (which I wrote about here a while ago). After completing my visit, I found out that the Bibliothèque-musée de l’Opéra had a Picasso exhibition on. Being dance and Picasso two of my favourite things in the world, I could not but go and take a look.
Picasso’s involvement with dance is wide-raging and the exhibition uncovers several facets of this relationship, with impressive rigour and precision. From costumes for the Ballets russes to set designs, from the erotic power of dance to painting as a “danced” gesture, there is much to explore around Picasso and dance.
Scrupulously arranged, the exhibition features photographs, drawings, paintings, and even 3D reconstructions of stage costumes. Picasso worked on a number of operas, but his biggest involvement were the costumes and/or set designs for Parade (1917), Le Tricorne (1919), Pulcinella (1920) and Mercure (1924). It’s fascinating to see Picasso’s own artistic journey evolving through Cubism, Surrealism and Naturalism in the artworks he produced for opera. The world of circus and masks, which is important throughout his artistic production, features prominently, and so does an aura of simplicity, festivity, and wonder – which is central to dance and theatre themselves.
Pablo Picasso, Project pour le rideau de scène du ballet Parade (1916-17)
Pablo Picasso, Étude de décor pour le ballet Pulcinella (1920)
Taking a more oblique approach, the exhibition goes on to explore dance as a subject matter in Picasso’s work. One of his recurring themes of the ’40s are frenetic Bacchic dances, where one can almost hear Dionysian rhythms while contemplating the paintings. When music and movement are encapsulated in a still work of art, there is something magical about experiencing it.
Pablo Picasso, ‘Danses’ (1954)
Even Picasso’s representations of the Corrida are displayed as dance, as they feature the same amount of vital energy and unstoppable motion. A similar energy can be seen in the erotic power of dance, with captivating and sensual poses of both fictional and real people. These have something to say about the way Picasso saw the world, and the role dance played in it.
Most interesting is the last part of the display, where the artistic practice is understood as a ‘danced gesture’ (a bit like Pollock’s action painting). With photographs using long exposure, Gjon Mili asked Picasso to draw in the air using a light. The result is concrete movement, and luminous shapes that embody Picasso’s distinctive style. Finishing off as Picasso as a dancer himself is a delicate, classy way to bring the display to an end.
Gjon Mili, Pablo Picasso dessinant un centaure au crayon lumineux, dans l’atelier de Madoura, Vallauris (August 1949)
Admittedly, I was in the most receptive, easy-to-impress state ever when I went to see ‘Picasso et la danse’. I visited the exhibition after spending a week in southern France, taking part in Le Gran Bal de l’Europe, a folk dance festival. In a nutshell, the festival changed the way I now see dance, and the exhibition consolidated this. It tapped into my experience of dancing 10 hours a day, feeling utter bliss and abandonment in the joy of moving, whirling round and round at a ridiculous speed, enjoying a mazurka cheek to cheek with a stranger. Thus ‘Picasso et la danse’ reinforced the idea that dance can be seen everywhere, and that without it life would be a great deal more insipid.