Head of a Woman: Picasso’s interpretations of Fernande Olivier

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Head of a Woman (Fernande), autumn 1909
Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman (Fernande), bronze, autumn 1909, Art Institute of Chicago

During a visit to Chicago I viewed the Picasso Exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. Prominent amongst the exhibited artwork, was the sculpture “Head of a Woman (Fernande)”.

It is not a simple sculpture. It is an adventure. Every angle opens new dimensions, interpretations, and insights into what the head might be. 

This sculpted head gave me the inspiration to write this article.

Pablo Picasso, "Portrait of Fernande Olivier”, 1906, Gouache on Paper, private collection, Stockholm
Pablo Picasso, “Portrait of Fernande Olivier”, 1906, Gouache on Paper, private collection, Stockholm

Picasso and Fernande Olivier met on a rainy day in August 1904.

Fernande became reportedly Picasso’s first known long-term relation & subject of many of Picasso’s Rose Period paintings (1905-07).

Their romance lasted until 1909, but continued to be together as friends until 1912.

Pablo Picasso, Fernande with a Black Mantilla (Fernande à la mantille noire), Paris, 1905–06. Oil on canvas. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Thannhauser Collection,
Pablo Picasso, Fernande with a Black Mantilla (Fernande à la mantille noire), Paris, 1905–06. Oil on canvas. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Thannhauser Collection,

Picasso’s portrait Fernande with a Black Mantilla 1906, is a transitional work. Still somewhat expressionistic and romantic, with its subdued tonality and lively brushstrokes, the picture depicts Fernande Olivier wearing a mantilla, which perhaps symbolizes the artist’s Spanish origins. The iconic stylization of her face and its abbreviated features, however, foretell Picasso’s increasing interest in the abstract qualities and solidity of Iberian sculpture, which would profoundly influence his subsequent works. Though naturalistically delineated, the painting presages his imminent experiments with abstraction. (Source: Guggenheim Museum).

Head of a woman, 1906
Head of a woman, 1906

Another 1906 picture “Head of a woman (Fernande)”, is totally different in style. Space and perspective are somehow distorted. The angular aspects of the face are prominent.

As we approach 1907 “Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon” cleared the way to cubism, as John Richardson comments in his “A Life of Picasso”.

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Oil on Canvas, 1907, MOMA, New York
Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Oil on Canvas, 1907, MOMA, New York

Two years later, Picasso paints Fernande in the “Head of a Woman” as a multi-level distorted face.

Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman, summer 1909
Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman, summer 1909, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago

“Woman with Pears” has the same style.

This is one of several portraits Picasso painted of Fernande, during the summer of 1909, a period that the couple spent in Picasso’s native Spain. While the pears in the background are modeled in the round, Picasso radically reconfigured Oliviers head and bust, fragmenting them into geometrical segments. This fracturing of solid volumes offered an alternative to the traditional illusionistic and perspectival approach to depicting three–dimensional space on a two–dimensional surface and suggests the direction Picasso’s process would take in the development of Cubism. (Source: MOMA).

Pablo Picasso, Woman with Pears (Fernande), 1909
Pablo Picasso, Woman with Pears (Fernande), summer 1909, oil on canvas, MOMA, New York

The slices carved into the figures neck and the diamond recesses of her eyes are replicated in the sculpture Womans Head (Fernande), which Picasso created in the fall of that year.

‘My greatest artistic emotions were aroused when the sublime beauty of the sculptures created by anonymous artists in Africa was suddenly revealed to me’ Picasso told the poet Apollinaire. This sculpture is of his companion Fernande Olivier. Its flat, planed surface relates the work to his cubist paintings of the same period. Picasso made two plaster casts of the head, from which at least sixteen bronze examples were cast.

Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman (Fernande) 1909, Plaster, Tate Gallery
Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman (Fernande) 1909, Plaster, Tate Gallery, London

One of the plaster casts is today at London’s Tate Gallery.

“One of only two plasters made by Picasso from which at least sixteen bronzes were cast, this version is completely white, unlike Tate Modern’s version which has been toned in a brownish finish (presumably to emulate bronzes cast from it). The point of Cubism was to disregard one-point perspective in painting—long held since the Renaissance—breaking down the picture plane, the prison of two dimensions, enabling the artist to show the object or figure in the round.” (Culture Spectator, PABLO PICASSO AT MFA HOUSTON UNTIL THE 27TH MAY 2013)

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) Head of a Woman (Fernande), 1909 Plaster Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection, Dallas, Texas
Pablo Picasso, 
Head of a Woman (Fernande), 1909
Plaster Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection, Dallas, Texas, USA

The other plaster cast is in Texas.

We now come to the bronze sculptures. The one I saw in Chicago was donated by Alfred Stieglitz to the Art Institute in 1949.

Head of a Woman (Fernande), autumn 1909
Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman (Fernande), autumn 1909, bronze, Art Institute of Chicago

“Like Rembrandt’s most intimate portraits, it is about the mystery of being close to another human being. Picasso makes you recognise this by inviting your eye down into those channels and crevices, until you feel you are inside Fernande’s head.

This is one of the seminal works of cubism, and in the state that Picasso liked it best. He moulded Fernande’s head in clay, then made two plaster casts from which he authorised a series of bronzes. He never liked the bronzes as much as this raw plaster version. It is a key work in the development of cubism because it was the first time Picasso realised he could translate his new kind of painting into three dimensions this is one of his paintings from that time given solid form.”

(Jonathan Jones, Head of a woman, The Guardian)

Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman (Fernande) c 1909, bronze, Art Gallery of Ontario
Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman (Fernande) c 1909, bronze, Art Gallery of Ontario

In 1909, over a ten-month period, Picasso was inspired to create more than sixty Cubist paintings, sculptures, and drawings of women that bear a striking resemblance to his paramour at the time, Fernande Olivier. Although few of these works could be considered traditional “portraits,” they do form a unique group within his oeuvre that shows him working with unusually singular focus. This bronze head of Fernande was modeled in autumn 1909 in Paris after the couple returned from a summer trip to Spain (Horta de Ebro), and represents Picasso’s first Cubist sculpture. Like his early Cubist paintings, the shape of her sculpted head is faceted into smaller units. Fernande’s hair, which she wore up in a rolled do, is here a series of crescent blobs, while her contemplative face is more sharply chiseled into flat planes. Intended to be seen in the round, the composition changes form when viewed from different angles, and the head’s slight tilt and the neck’s sweeping curves give the allusion of movement as if she were about to look over her shoulder. (Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

Head of a Woman, 1909
Head of a Woman, 1909, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
picasso1_detail
Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman (Fernande), detail – autumn 1909, bronze, Art Institute of Chicago
Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman (Fernande), autumn 1909, bronze, Art Institute of Chicago
Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman (Fernande), autumn 1909, bronze, Art Institute of Chicago
Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman (Fernande), detail - autumn 1909, bronze, Art Institute of Chicago
Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman (Fernande), detail – autumn 1909, bronze, Art Institute of Chicago
Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman (Fernande), signature - autumn 1909, bronze, Art Institute of Chicago
Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman (Fernande), signature – autumn 1909, bronze, Art Institute of Chicago

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