The New York Historical Society is to unveil Pablo Picasso’s iconic painted theater curtain, commissioned for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Le Tricorne, in 1919. The masterpiece is the largest work by the Spanish born artist in America. It was donated by the Landmarks Conservancy to the New York Historical Society and after considerable conservation will be on view to the public, later this spring. The Le Tricorne curtain was installed as a tapestry for 55 years at the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Mies van der Rohe designed, modernist, Seagram Building, in New York City.
The painted curtain was controversially removed by the building’s art collecting owner Abi Rosen, who according to the New York Times referred to the masterpiece “as a schmatte”—Yiddish for a rag. “He said it was a rag,” stated a horrified Phyllis Lambert, the well known Canadian architect and Seagram heiress, who oversaw the creation of the Seagram Building and bought the curtain in 1957. Rosen who collects Warhol and Hirst among others notoriously pissed off his suburban neighbours by erecting a 13-ton, 33-foot-high painted bronze sculpture by Damien Hirst which he placed on his 5.5-acre estate, depicting a pregnant woman, with the skin peeled back on one side exposing her fetus. Sound familiar?
The mural 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.
Top Photo: courtesy of Rick Bruner, The New York Landmarks Conservancy