Was Picasso ‚?? lover of women, Spaniard expatriate, passionate painter ‚?? preoccupied with the figure of the gypsy seductress, Carmen? The Mus√©e Picasso is currently holding an exhibition based on the premise that the character of Carmen, first developed in Prosper M√©rim√©e’s 1845 novel and then interpreted in Georges Bizet’s 1874 opera, was an influential figure in the painter‚??s oeuvre and imaginary. Alan Riding‚??s interesting review in the International Herald Tribune promotes this reading of Picasso‚??s work, imagining a seductive Carmen as motor and muse for his representations of the many women he painted throughout his life. I am not convinced this reading ‚??sticks,‚?Ě however, once you‚??ve examined the sources on display.
To be sure, Picasso twice illustrated editions of Carmen ‚?? once in the late 1940s and again in 1964 (Le Carmen des Carmen) ‚?? and entitled “Carmen” an early drawing of a Spanish woman. A Spaniard and also lover of many women, images of his lovers wearing mantilla veils appear in dozens of drawings and paintings, as does imagery of the corrida. These two themes ‚?? seductive women and the bullfight ‚?? are indeed the principal components of the Carmen story and so, also, form the bulk of the Picasso works in the exhibition.
But I argue that these themes are simply identifiers of the Spanish culture from which Picasso came and then definitively left behind during the Franco era. The retro-fit operation of placing Carmen behind these works of art doesn‚??t seem to fit when Carmen really represents an exotic, Spanish caricature that would mean more to an outsider (say, a French author) than to the painter himself.
An avid fan of the corrida, Picasso quite often experienced this tradition of stamina and struggle, honor and sacrifice. It should be no surprise that the bullfight would emerge in so many of his drawings and paintings: Alan Riding has a convincing argument that Picasso used the bullfight in his art as a metaphor for animalistic human passions. Nonetheless, it would hold more strongly that the corrida imagery came from first-hand experience and artistic interpretation than it did from a 19th-century French story the artist read or opera he saw. It is not doubtful Picasso was interested in the corrida theme of the Carmen story, but the interest most likely preceded the story and not the other way around. It made up the cultural imaginary that surrounded him.
Much has been said about Picasso‚??s personal life. Womanizer to some, serial monogamist to others, he was married twice and had four children with three different women, and had many other companions in between. Fran√ßoise Gilot notoriously wrote about their 9-year relationship in often unflattering terms. I am not convinced, however, that this behavior is linked to a ‚??Carmen‚?Ě that Picasso sought time after time in his serial amorous exploits. The theme of the femme fatale has more far-reaching origins and widespread interpretations than the particular figure of Carmen. Fin-de-si√®cle and Belle Epoque art and literature is particularly preoccupied with dangerous, hysterical, and eroticized femmes fatales, through figures like the biblical Salom√© in the symbolist art of Gustave Moreau, paintings by Gustav Klimt, and literary works by decadent writers like Joris-Karl Huysmans. If in Picasso’s work or life such a figure emerges, it would be more useful to analyze this phenomenon in the broader context of late 19th- and early 20th-century art.
In all, the exhibition did not seem to provide convincing evidence of a ‚??Carmen‚?Ě figure as the influential force behind the works displayed, but promoted instead a hind-sight look at his oeuvre through Merim√©e‚??s lens. Spain seen through the eyes of a Frenchman (be it M√©rim√©e or Bizet) then caricaturized and reintroduced to a Spaniard? It may be giving too much credit to the mythical Carmen what Picasso‚??s own native visual inspiration and cultural imagery produced in his work. This context would serve as a more accurate and equally interesting premise to the exhibition.
“Picasso-Carmen: Sol y Sombra” runs until June 24.
Mus√©e Picasso, 5, rue de Thorigny, 3rd arrondissement.
Open everyday but Tuesday from 9:30am-6:00pm.