Italy’s Influence on the Art of Picasso


Courtesy Musée National Picasso, Paris

“Portrait of Olga in the Armchair”

Pablo Picasso’s journey to Italy in January of 1917 offered one of the most significant but least investigated influences on his art.  It was in Italy where he began his second rose period and absorbed the powerful spirit of Renaissance, Classical, and Mannerist art, as well as Italian culture.

Picasso designed the curtains and sets for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes production of Parade, a one act avant-garde ballet written by Jean Cocteau, scored by Eric Satie, and choreographed by Diaghilev’s lover Léonide Massine.  Parade was to be performed in Paris that May, so in the meantime Picasso and Cocteau joined Diaghilev and Massine in Rome where the Ballets Russes was headquartered during World War I.  Picasso accompanied the Ballets Russes to Venice and Florence where he visited Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel.

And, as writer Jennifer Theriault points out:

It was the Farnese marbles in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples that would have the most profound effect on Picasso’s art.  Over the years the inspiration from these classical Greek and Roman masterpieces burned deep in Picasso’s sculpture.  They also propelled him closer toward Neoclassicism in his painting, eventually serving to “classicize his work far more effectively than the antiquities he had studied in the Louvre,” as John Richardson notes in the epic third installment of his seminal Picasso biography “Picasso: The Triumphant Years.”

Back in Rome, Picasso continued meeting artists while making the requisite tourist stops.  He got to know members of the Italian Futurist movement, including Giacomo Balla and Fortunato Depero, and visited the Vatican Museums with Enrico Prampolini who commented on the “pleasure with which [Picasso] contemplated the Sistine frescoes and, still more, Raphael’s Stanze and the Vatican museums of sculpture.”

It was here where he also found a new sujet d’art:  Olga Khokhlova, a 25-year-old Russian ballerina, who became his first wife.

In the book The Italian Journey 1917-1924, editors Jean Claire and Odile Michel explore the fascinating ties between Picasso’s work and his experiences in Italy:

He also brought back enough memories to affect his imagery for several decades, as readers discover in this 367-page book.  There are 13 essays here, such as Jean Clair’s “Notes on the Iconography of Harlequin,” Anne Baldassari’s “Pompeian Fantasy: a Photographic Source of Picasso’s Neoclassicism,” and Ornella Volta’s “Picasso and Italy: the Last Memories of His Journey.”  The book is filled with large color plates reproducing Picasso’s paintings, drawings, and prints, including many that are only rarely seen, such as a group of caricatures of his companions, including Diaghilev and Léon Bakst.  The book also includes dozens of reproductions of period photographs, mementos Picasso collected on his travels, and art that affected him – Pompeiian wall paintings, ballet dancers, and classical painting.  Readers will find much food for thought, as well as some priceless quotes from the master.  When Picasso went to the Sistine Chapel, for example, he found the Raphaels wanting.  “Good, very good,” he remarked, “but it can be done, don’t you think?”  Then, turning to the Michelangelo’s Last Judgment: “Now this is more difficult.”