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Lot 14
Pablo Picasso
La première communion 25 5/8 x 21 1/2 in. (65 x 53.6 cm)

US$ 600,000 - 800,000
£ 460,000 - 610,000

Impressionist & Modern Art

16 Nov 2016, 16:00 EST

New York

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
La première communion
oil on canvas
25 5/8 x 21 1/2 in. (65 x 53.6 cm)
Painted in 1919


  • Provenance
    Estate of the artist.
    Claude Picasso (by descent from the above).
    Pace Gallery, New York.
    James Goodman Gallery, New York.
    Fabian Carlsson, London (acquired from the above gallery in March 1989).
    Private Collection, New York.
    James Goodman Gallery, New York.
    Private Collection, New York (acquired from the above in 2003).

    Paris, Galerie Claude Bernard, Picasso Peintures 1901-1971, 1980, no. 5.
    New York, James Goodman Gallery, Paintings, Watercolors and Drawings by Dubuffet, Léger and Picasso, 1988, no. 14.

    J. Palau i Fabre, Picasso: from the Ballets to Drama (1917-1926), Barcelona, 1999, no. 373 (illustrated p. 128).

    Claude Picasso has kindly confirmed the authenticity of this work.

    This powerful work is from a small group of compositions painted by Picasso in 1919 which meditate on an anonymous photograph of a young girl and boy at their First Communion. Through this exploration of a theme and variations, a technique he employed repeatedly and famously throughout his career, he was able to examine a number of his principle concerns at a major crossroads in his artistic journey. With Les communiants (Private collection; Zervos, III, 286), formerly in the collection of Jacques Doucet, he addresses the subject in the flat, jagged planes of his Synthetic Cubist drawings of 1915. Taking a different route, in La première communion (Paris, Musée Picasso), in what is perhaps an admission that Cubism, his great revolution, had limits, he addresses the composition in an overtly Pompier style, drenching it with sentimentality and the self-importance of late 19th Century Academicism. Perhaps aware that his contemporaries might not see the ironic basis of this dual approach the later painting was not known in his lifetime (J. Palau i Fabre, op. cit., no. 374). The present work gives us an indication that Picasso had discovered a way out of his impasse. In the serene features and the weighty limbs of the young girl he explores the essence of the volumetric classicism that he would pursue over the next decade. As Josep Palau i Fabre notes, 'the head of the girl is isolated and described with a poverty of material resources that reaffirms Picasso's wealth of artistic resources' (J. Palau i Fabre, op. cit., p. 128). By harnessing his creative genius to the overlooked power of sentimentality he was able to cut a new path: 'The artist would always be in search of ways of playing style and content off against each other. Paradox is intrinsic to Picasso's vision. He had an instinctive understanding of something Pop artists would discover fifty years later: namely that banality, even inanity, used ironically can provoke people into seeing familiar things anew.' (J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years 1917-1932, New York, 2010, p. 150).

    Picasso's Neoclassicism is among his most misunderstood but most innovative discoveries. Although he had been experimenting with the mode since 1914, it was after the end of World War I that it became central to his work. In part this grew out of his projects for the Ballets Russes, and implied a renewed linear precision, a return to figuration and a reexamination of traditional formal values. This was against the backdrop of a wider Rappel à l'ordre [Return to Order] in the artistic community, including his fellow pioneer Braque, faced with the chaos and destruction of the war years. By returning to the balance of Classicism artists hoped to evoke timelessness and simplicity which further could be placed opposite the intense hermeneutics of Cubism. In Picasso's hands however it became a means to address his old concerns but to reach new and surprising conclusions. It is important to note that he was able to follow both paths simultaneously: the summer of 1919, as the First Communion series was gestating, also saw the astonishing series of Guéridon still lifes which address in preeminently Cubist terms the problem of depicting objects in space.

    As Michael FitzGerald notes: 'Among the many phases of Picasso's work, neoclassicism is perhaps the most controversial, because its stylistic eclecticism and widespread popularity have led some writers to criticize it as a reactionary departure from modernism. When placed in the context of cultural developments during World War I, however, Picasso's neoclassicism is better understood as a renewal of the avant-garde. By explicitly embracing history, Picasso escaped the strictures of an increasingly rigid modernism to define a more vital alternative. He repudiated the convention of modernism's ahistoricism in order to acknowledge its maturity, as well as his own, and rejuvenate the avant-garde by immersing it in the rich humanistic traditions that many Cubist artists and theorists denied in a search for formal purity' (M.C. Fitzgerald in W. Rubin (ed.), Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation, London, 1996, p. 297).

    A further spur to Picasso's Neoclassicism was his renewed engagement with the Old Masters. The Louvre had been closed during the hostilities, and only reopened towards the end of 1919. That summer André Lhote wrote an article exhorting artists to visit the museum in a process of cleansing and recalibration: 'As someone who saw himself reworking the masters of the past in his own idiom, he was all too ready to return to the Louvre eager to convert, as Lhote put it 'the classic theme into the furniture of our pictures'; he needed to study how the masters of French classicism had reacted to the classicism of the ancient world, the better to reinvent the style in his own work' (J. Richardson, op. cit., p. 148).

    Picasso was particularly fascinated by the Nineteenth Century French galleries, which contained masterpieces such as Delacroix's Femmes d'Alger and Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe which would recur frequently in his work. At this point however it seems that he was above all drawn to Ingres. In 1919 he moved from exhibiting at the Galerie de l'Effort Moderne run by Leonce Rosenberg in Kahnweiler's absence and where he had shown Cubism, to Galerie Paul Rosenberg, which was oriented more towards Renoir and the Nineteenth Century. His first exhibition, which opened on 3 October 1919, included 3 works after Ingres and Rubens: the critic J.G. Lemoine archly noted that Picasso 'agilely pirouettes over Cubism which now bores him. He jumps over Impressionism. He jostles Courbet in passing and falls on his knees before Monsieur Ingres.' (J.G. Lemoine, 'Picasso chez Paul Rosenberg 21 rue de la Boétie', in L'Intransigeant, 29 October 1919, quoted in J. Richardson, op. cit., p. 144).

    The influence of the cool classicism of Ingres, of the composure and sculptural form so characteristic of the latter's most serene compositions, is readily evident in the present work. Specifically it is possible to see strong echoes of the facial structure and pose of Ingres' La Sainte Vierge of circa 1858 which by 1919 was in the collection of Marie Alexandrine Roland-Gosselin (now Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria). This influence was even more apparent in the following year with the sequence of works inspired by Ingres' portrait of Madame Moitessier (now London, National Gallery), including La Liseuse (Paris, Centre Pompidou).

    Despite these strong links Picasso once complained to John Richardson that some observers believed it was 'as if Ingres were the only artist I ever looked at in the Louvre' (J. Richardson, op. cit., p. 168). As Pierre Daix explained, the relationship with early masters was even deeper, and represented a key moment in Picasso's development: 'He had reached in his painting a point of comprehension. He understood what there was in common between Poussin, Ingres, and Cézanne and the quest conducted by Braque and himself during Cubism's grand phases of discovery: the perfect rigor and order of compositions which carry the power of painting to their peak of purity and strength' (Pierre Daix, quoted in W. Rubin (ed.), op. cit., p. 314).
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