Devon resident, Lydia Corbett may not be a name instantly associated, when one thinks of Pablo Picasso, but in the early 1950s her image was synonymous with the master. Sylvette, The Girl with the Ponytail became an iconic fashion prototype which went on to influence the young Bridget Bardot and much of the post war style that followed her success. Now 79 and living in Devon, Sylvette David, who these days goes by her married name Lydia Corbett, was a beautiful 19-year-old blonde living in the pottery town of Vallauris in the South of France.
Sylvette met Pablo Picasso in a chance encounter. In the spring of 1954. She embodied his ideal of modern beauty and youth typical of that era ‒ tall in stature, with long, blond hair bound in a pony tail ‒ and inspired the painter to create a series of portraits. For months, he experimented in front of the model with various styles and techniques. With seeming effortlessness, Picasso varied his approach from realistic depictions to cubist abstractions of the same pictorial subject. With brush and pencil, Picasso created close-to-nature likenesses and complex abstractions of Sylvette. Arising at the same time were folded metal sculptures painted in black and white.
Already in 1955, the Kunsthalle Bremen acquired a typical example from this unique series and now ‒ sixty years later ‒ is presenting the first exhibition devoted exclusively to these works, with important loans from throughout the world. The series comprises more than fifty works consisting of drawings, paintings, metal sculptures, and ceramics.
Photography by David Douglas Duncan, Alexander Liberman, Arnold Newman, François Pages, Edward Quinn and André Villers document the sessions in Picasso’s studio and the relationship between artist and model. The exhibited photographs and works of art offer insights into Picasso’s creative process as well as the Zeitgeist, fashion and glamorous lifestyle on the Côte d’Azur during the 1950s.
The Sylvette series is contextualised through a number of works documenting Picasso’s work and style during this decade. Picasso met Sylvette at a critical moment of his artistic career and personal life. His relationship with Françoise Gilot ended in September 1953, causing a personal and creative crisis. In the summer of 1954 he met Jacqueline Roque who was to become the artist’s companion until the end of his life. The exhibition presents a variety of related portraits of Françoise Gilot and Jacqueline Roque as well as works on the theme of painter and model, framing the Sylvette series within the wider exploration of creativity, desire and progress of time.
Sylvette David is recognisable to many as The Girl With A Ponytail – the subject of more than 40 paintings, drawings and sculptures by Pablo Picasso – but also as the inspiration behind a 1950s craze.
“Bardot wrote subsequently in her autobiography that she’d asked him to paint her, but he declined because he’d ‘already painted Sylvette David’ and we looked as alike as two drops of water!” she laughs. “However, she became famous and I was forgotten. Mind you, I was shy and didn’t court publicity, and although I had offers from the film world – Jacques Tati approached me in a Paris street – it was generally supposed that one had to sleep with film producers, and I wasn’t having that.”
Pablo Picasso, Sylvette, 1954, Oil on canvas Kunsthalle Bremen – Der Kunstverein in Bremen, Photo: Lars Lohrisch
© Succession Picasso / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2013
Sylvette, Sylvette, Sylvette: Picasso and the Model 22 February to 22 June 2014 Exhibition of the Society for the Promotion of Contemporary Art at the Kunstverein Bremen Germany