Pablo Picasso “Le Tricorne”

The New-York Historical Society

poster for Pablo Picasso “Le Tricorne”

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The New-York Historical Society unveils a recently acquired and conserved masterpiece by the Spanish born, French artist Pablo Picasso – the painted theater curtain for the ballet Le Tricorne (1919). Donated by the Landmarks Conservancy to New-York Historical, the Le Tricorne curtain was installed like a tapestry for 55 years at the iconic Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York City. Believed to be the largest painting by Picasso in the United States, the 20 x 19 foot theater curtain is the first work by the artist in New-York Historical’s collection.

The curtain will be on long-term view at New-York Historical beginning May 29, 2015. From May 29 through summer 2016, an exhibition with related highlights from New-York Historical’s collection and special loans will complement the monumental artwork. Curated by Dr. Roberta J.M. Olson, New-York Historical’s Curator of Drawings, the exhibition will illustrate the European tradition―with works by artists that inspired Picasso or, alternatively, works representing trends that he rebelled against―and showcase American art of the era. Among the artists represented are George Bellows, El Greco, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Francisco de Goya, Childe Hassam, Elie Nadelman, Maurice Prendergast, John Sloan, Adriaen van Utrecht, Judocus de Vos, and others.

“Le Tricorne has been an icon of New York for more than half a century, embodying both an influential social milieu and an important moment in the city’s cultural development,” said Louise Mirrer, President and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. “As an institution that preserves, studies, and exhibits the artifacts of a continually changing city, we are proud to welcome the work into our permanent collection.”

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was commissioned to design and paint the stage curtain for the two-act ballet The Three-Cornered Hat (“Le Tricorne” or “El sombrero de tres picos”) by the impresario Serge Diaghilev for his avant-garde, Paris-based Ballets Russes, the most influential ballet company of the early 20th century and a crucible of experimental modernism. Picasso was most intensely involved with the Ballets Russes while married to Olga Khokhlova, a dancer with the troupe. Choreographed by Léonide Massine who was also the principal male dancer, with music by the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla, Le Tricorne was based on a Spanish romantic novella and featured fiery flamenco and folkloric dances.

Picasso created the curtain for Le Tricorne over a period of three weeks in 1919 in London with Diaghilev’s scene painter Vladimir Polunin and his wife Elizabeth Violet. Working with paintbrushes affixed to broom-handles and toothbrushes, Picasso and the Polunins wore slippers to stand on the canvas as they painted. The ballet―which premiered on July 22, 1919, at the Alhambra Theatre in London, with sets, costumes and the monumental stage curtain by Picasso―was a resounding critical success.

Shown during Le Tricorne’s overture, Picasso’s curtain signaled a quintessentially Spanish vignette: a bullfight. In the foreground of the painting, five spectators and a young fruit vendor are watching the bullfight from a classicizing colonnaded balcony. In the background, a slain bull is dragged out of the arena, the violent image partially concealed by spectators. The scene is painted in ochre yellow and reddish orange, the traditional colors of the bullring, and the figures are outlined in black, in the bold style of posters then in vogue. Although unrelated to the libretto’s plot, Picasso’s curtain clearly set the Iberian mood for the ballet.

In 1928, in need of money to finance new shows, Diaghilev cut out the center of the large curtain and sold it to a private collector. In 1957, it was first acquired by Phyllis Lambert, architectural historian and daughter of Samuel Bronfman, CEO of the Seagram Company Ltd. (now Vivendi), who displayed it in the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building from 1959-2014. Vivendi gifted Picasso’s Le Tricorne curtain to the New York Landmarks Conservancy in 2005 as a “Gift to the City.” The Conservancy has now entrusted the New-York Historical Society with this New York City landmark.

Inspired by Picasso’s painting for Le Tricorne, the exhibition will explore stylistic and thematic connections between the curtain and artworks and objects in New-York Historical’s holdings, supplemented by three special loans. Among the collection highlights are two large, recently-conserved tapestries that have not been displayed for decades – Judocus de Vos’ The Triumph of Apollo (ca. 1715), which dates to the end of the reign of the French “Sun King” Louis XIV, and the Art Deco Belgian Settlers Landing on Manhattan Island in 1623 (1939), created by Floris Jespers for the New York World’s Fair of 1939. Masterworks by El Greco and Goya, on loan from the Hispanic Society of America, will showcase Picasso’s artistic influences.

Picasso’s “Le Tricorne” also will present works by American artists who were Picasso’s contemporaries, many of who participated in the 1913 Armory Show that introduced modernism to U.S. audiences. The Circus (1912) by George Bellows, on loan from the Addison Gallery of American Art, will underline the importance of the Armory Show, where Picasso also showed his work. Elie Nadelman, who also exhibited at the Armory Show, met Picasso in Paris in 1908 and whose terracotta sculpture The Four Seasons (ca. 1912) shows a similar classical inspiration, sometimes claimed that in fact he – not Picasso – had invented Cubism. On the other hand, Russian immigrant artist Abraham Manievich’s The Bronx (1924) applied a Cubist-Futurist style to the New York cityscape.

The exhibition also will note the craze for Spanish culture inspired by the success of Le Tricorne, showcasing ivory and lace fans and a lace shawl that echo the fashions of Picasso’s painted figures, as well as dance-related objects from the collection that relate to New York City, such as Malvina Hoffman’s bust of acclaimed Russian dancer Anna Pavlova (1924). It also will feature a video of the 1994 performance of Le Tricorne by the Paris Opera Ballet.



from May 29, 2015 to March 30, 2016


Pablo Picasso

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