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Picasso’s Neapolitan Parade

14.04.2017. Art & Culture

“We’re back in Rome after a trip to Naples, and from there, by car, to Pompeii. I can’t think of another city in the world that I like as much as Naples. Classical antiquity swarms, made brand-new, in this Arab Montmartre, in the vast chaos of its never-ending circus. What drives the storyline of these storybook people is food, God and fornication. Vesuvius makes all the world’s clouds. The sea is sea-blue. It scatters hyacinths on the sidewalks”.

So wrote French poet and dramatist Jean Cocteau to his mother on 13 March 1917. The ‘we’ of the letter referred to his friends Pablo Picasso, Sergei Diaghilev and Léonide Massine, with whom Cocteau had embarked on a two-month Italian tour that would take the quartet to Rome, Naples and Pompeii. The four were working on an avant-garde ballet, Parade, created by Cocteau for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes company, with music by Erik Satie and choreography by Massine. Picasso, then already a rising art-world superstar, had been brought on board to design the sets, props and costumes.



© RMN-Grand Palais / Musée Picasso de Paris / Franck Raux
© Succession Picasso by SIAE 2017 

It might seem odd that these four creative souls should decide to embark on an Italian break in the midst of war-ravaged Europe. But by 1917 the senseless carnage of a war that was locked in stalemate had prompted a thirst for culture, for new means of expression, for the channelling of human energies into art rather than destruction. In the words of Hans Arp, one of the founders of the Dada movement: “As the thunder of artillery rolled in the distance, we sang, painted, built and wrote for all we were worth. We were searching for an elemental art, to cure people of the madness of the age”.


© RMN-Grand Palais / Musée Picasso de Paris / Franck Raux
© Succession Picasso by SIAE 2017 

In Naples in March 1917, Picasso and Cocteau immersed themselves in the life of the city, its sounds and colours and teeming life. But they also delved into classical antiquity, visiting Pompeii, where Cocteau took a photo of a pipe-smoking Picasso and a quiet, smiling Massine sitting amidst the ruins (see above). It was here, too, that Picasso gathered a laurel leaf and inscribed on it a dedication to his friend Guillaume Apollinaire, who had been seriously wounded on the Western Front. On a return visit to Naples in April, Picasso attended a Commedia dell’Arte performance with composer Igor Stravinsky and Ballet Russes ballerina Olga Khoklova, who a year later would become his first wife. In his memoirs, Stravinsky recalled how he and Picasso developed a taste for Neapolitan gouaches of street and folklore scenes: “during our frequent walks we’d go on buying sprees in artists’ workshops and junk shops”.

All this, with the great sweep of the Bay of Naples and the puffing cone of Vesuvius behind, went into the sets and costumes that Picasso would design for Parade, and later for Stravinsky’s Commedia-dell-Arte-themed ballet Pulcinella. Naples, Vesuvius and Pompeii were the backdrop not only to the blossoming of Picasso’s love for Olga but to a seismic shift in his art from Cubism to what his friend Cocteau called the ‘return to order’. This new fluid figurative style found an outlet, above all, in paintings of harlequins or pulcinellas, one of the best-known being his portrait of Massine dressed in harlequin costume, now at Barcelona’s Museu Picasso.



Mondadori Portfolio / Bridgeman Images © Succession Picasso by SIAE 2017

But the ultimate symbol of the Spanish painter’s joyous new artistic direction is the Parade stage curtain he painted, with his usual speed, on return to Paris in May 1917. Measuring seventeen metres long by ten high, this is by far the largest painting Picasso ever created, and it’s at the centre of a fascinating exhibition on the artist’s Neapolitan sojourn and the creative forces it unleashed, which runs in two venues, Naples’ Capodimonte Museum and the Antiquarium in Pompeii, until 10 July. 

So fragile is the curtain that it is rarely displayed – even in its home, the Centre Pompidou in Paris. In a trompe l’oeil divertissement, the curtain itself displays a simple wooden stage flanked by billowing red curtains. Behind, one catches a glimpse of a mountain very like Vesuvius and some classical ruins – a solitary arch, a lone column. In the foreground, a group of circus performers turn to look at an angel-winged acrobat atop a winged horse, who nestles maternally against her young foal.



© Roberto Salomone

It’s a tender scene, one that celebrates Mediterranean cultural roots, folk traditions and the companionship of this motley troupe of performers. Alongside the curtain, several other works by Picasso are on display here. They include the Massine harlequin portrait and several works loaned by the exhibition’s main partner, the Musée Picasso in Paris, among them the striking 1930 painting Acrobat, and a series of sketches for the costumes of Parade and Pulicnella. The Parade costumes themselves are hosted by the Pompeii section of the exhibition, alongside a group of Ancient Roman theatrical masks and African tribal masks.

Though it has never before been displayed in Naples, the Parade curtain’s presence here, in the grand ballroom of the Capodimonte Palace, feels like a homecoming. For the Museo di Capodimonte’s French director, Sylvain Bellenger, Picasso was inspired, in Southern Italy, by “popular theatre, Puclinella and Scarpetta, the Neapolitan Christmas creche”. It was a mix that would change the course of art history, ushering in not only the ‘return to order’ but, Bellenger suggests, the Surrealists. Lurking in the programme notes that Apollinaire wrote for the first performance of Parade on 18 May 1917 is the observation that this new alliance of the arts “had given rise... to a kind of Surrealism. In my view this is the first of many manifestations of the New Spirit now abroad”. It was the first ever recorded use of the term ‘Surrealism’: illuminated by Picasso, Cocteau, Diaghilev and Massine, Apollinaire coined a phrase that would enjoy a long and eventful history.


Picasso & Naples: Parade
8 April – 10 July
Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples
Antiquarium, Scavi di Pompeii


Main picture on top © Roberto Salomone

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