Revisiting Three Dancers

Picasso-3-Dancers-300x400Pablo Picasso is often recognized as the most influential modern artist of the 20th Century. The 1925 painting, Three Dancers, is the only seminal work of his prodigious 70+ year career that resides permanently in the UK. While in London, I took a special trip to revisit Three Dancers at the Tate Modern.

There are numerous conflicting interpretations of Three Dancers. I believe the truth lies somewhere in between the common academically-accepted theories. Picasso’s intent was to use the painting to reiterate his own mid-career achievements, to thwart immediate challengers in the Paris art hotbed and sto et the stage for an upcoming period of disturbing (for the period) abstract-figurative works. 

Nobody denies the profound impact of Picasso in developing new forms of artistic expression by challenging the rules which previously governed “fine” art. Three Dancers played a role in shattering the mainstream’s aesthetic preferences for sophistication, beauty and easily-deciphered imagery. It helped liberate artists to stretch those boundaries regardless of how disrupting their works might originally appear. While innovation doesn’t necessarily make something important, Picasso’s work was pivotal during an era when the essential qualitative values of fine art changed radically forever.

To put the significance of Three Dancers into perspective, we must examine its visual challenges and intertwined threads of introspective narrative. They provide insight into the artist and his attitudes toward life, peers and post-war society. One over-riding question becomes why Picasso would paint something like Three Dancers at this particular time in 1925?

In the early twenties, the Blue, Pink and Cubist periods that represent much of Picasso’s finest work had long since past. Picasso was already one of art’s most influential figures but each decade brought fresh challenges from new rivals. Never one to follow or rest passively on previous laurels, he continued to explore synthetic Cubism as well as ventures into unique forms of assemblage, collage and constructions. Picasso also began to show studies of what would eventually emerge as his distortional works. However, due to the conservative political climate of post-war Paris when France was less culturally risque while rebuilding its infrastructure, Picasso curiously returned to classic studies. Meandering from genre to genre, whatever Picasso tried he mastered. According to writer Timothy Hilton, “things are transmuted, transformed, digested, played with, but they are still there in the meaning of the picture. The wid- ranging delicacy with which Picasso could do this, taking what he noticed from so many types of art, was a unique quality . .  no other artist has any hint of a comparable vastness of painting culture.”

Picasso’s tangent into classic imagery immediately prior to the creation of Three Dancers makes the latter’s stylistic deviation appear abrupt and unexplainable, even for an artist such as Picasso who had already defied tradition almost two decades earlier with the creation of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Nevertheless, Three Dancers actually serves as a plausible, even predictable bridge from the visual Cubism that assured his position with the avant-garde to this narrative Cubist-like story wherein diverse interpretations replace multiple visual view points. In so doing, Picasso remained at the forefront even of movements he didn’t fully embrace, namely the old continent expressionists, early Surrealism and the forerunners of abstract expressionism. (Hilton 1975, p.157)  

Despite first appearance, Three Dancers represents a planned, logical progression in Picasso’s career. It serves to summarize from where he came and preview where he was going.

After exhausting the Cubist concept of multiple visual angles of incarnate objects or dutiful sitters, Three Dancers leaps off the wall to confront viewers rather than wait passively for them to circle slowly with confused expressions. It is an aggressive work of conflict, tension and raw emotion. Picasso uses multiple narratives to humanize this work, a defining moment of his career as he supplants the clinical aspects of Cubism with living drama. Picasso the planar technician becomes the provocative communicator of twisted plots.

Diverse interpretations have been discussed by dozens of writers over the years, including John Richardson and Roland Penrose who had lasting friendships with the artist. Unfortunately, Picasso was not one to clearly define his paintings and often gave disparate explanations even to his friends. (Harris 1996, wp.1) Were the three figures women or men? Were they dancers like Olga or vile man killers like Germain? Who was symbolized in the mock crucifixion, was it a martyred Casagemas who committed suicide after losing the three way love battle or was it Picasso sacrificing himself for his own indiscretions involving prostitutes, lovers and wives? Or was it Olga, she the victim of Picasso’s preference for his friends and whores?

Or could it simply be all of the above, leaving the viewer to determine which narrative is the central theme through their personal Picasso references?

What stimulated the artist to suddenly expose such pain and anger? Was it a failing marriage or Picasso mourning the loss of two close friends, Casagemas and Pichot? Was war rage still lingering or was Picasso merely trying to snap out of his post-war doldrums characterized by less meaningful work?  Was it a personal catharsis or a personal challenge to the art world, letting all competitors know that Picasso was back as a major player with his snarly side intact.

Or was it, again, all of the above? Art to Picasso was often personal but it was always competition. The boldness, the violence, the unpredictability were all awakened once more as were the rival-mocking, women-hating and attention-grasping bravado replete with passionate emotions that could never be concealed despite Picasso’s attempts to wrap them into riddles.

Three Dancers provides Picasso with a mid-career retrospective presented as a complex maize in one profoundly significant canvas. References are made to most of his major periods. The despair of the Blue Period’s downtrodden street dwellers is mirrored through the grimaces and contortions of the main characters of a sordid love triangle. The Pink Period’s pre-war joviality of the dancers seems to take front stage, albeit briefly. Present also are token acknowledgments of primitive masks serving to simultaneously reveal and camouflage Picasso’s spirit and desires. There are loose references to Cubism such as figures defined on flat planes as well as distorted multiple views. Some figures like that on the right are identifiable in various forms. The Cubist palette of white, black and brownish tones is evident but interrupted by a confrontation with blues and pinks that simultaneously form characters, pay homage to past periods and suggest a challenge to Matisse’s hypocrisy of using sordid prostitutes in calmly decorative art. The work also gives a sense of what was to follow in an often incomprehensible disrespect as Picasso sought to mould our perception of humans to one that was far less than pristinely perfect.

While the retrospective clues are clear, Picasso carefully differentiates this work from any one period, especially visual Cubism since the intent is narrative rather than a study of forms.  It includes fewer geometric shapes and incorporates an extended palette with easily recognizable objects. The setting has distinct three dimensionality, for instance the floor contour that creates perspective. Some figures have rudimentary shadows and the window in the background is open to the outdoors. The latter is rarely found in Cubism which avoided background depth by using closed windows or disruptive objects such as walls or mountains. (Fry 1966, p.157)  Colour is used effectively but is not overly indulgent. Elgar and Maillard speak of Picasso’s intent to diminish colour in order to favour his drawing skills and content. (Edgar and Maillard 1956, p.29-32) 

Three Dancers after all is a complicated statement, a communicative painting unconcerned with attractiveness but well aware of its profound aesthetic impact.

To further emphasize the importance that Picasso placed on Three Dancers, he included references to Matisse as well as the Surrealist movement from which he felt new challenges. His motive is clear. In a brash display, Picasso repositions himself at the pinnacle of modern art by acknowledging the potential of his competition and then trumping them with a more-engaging, multi-faceted work. To Picasso, Three Dancers serves as one more seminal work that solidifies his between-war superiority.

References to Matisse arise from the decorative background complete with patterned wallpaper and a composition featuring a blue-skied window. In Picasso’s world, the sun shines but all is not well. The figures holding hands are abrasive to one another rather than dancing in unison like Matisse’s various dancers . Picasso positions them angularly to denote friction rather than Matisse’s circular unity. Wall ornaments are not merely decorative, some such as the glittering star directly above the two hands in the upper right corner may represent a marital bond, fractured or otherwise. The window may not be merely an opening. Could it not just as easily be an escape route from the madness of this lover’s quarrel? Matisse’s concept of art as tranquil pleasure doesn’t sit squarely with the Picasso of 1925 who is already laying the groundwork for years of distorted anguish during his abstract-figurative period that represents the antithesis of Matisse’s artistic mandate.

Likewise, Picasso gives a passing nod to the Surrealists who mistakenly grasped Three Dancers as an icon for their new genre. They were largely a group of young, leftist writers and artists who needed Picasso’s recognition to legitimize their fledgling movement. Andre Breton wrote extensively about the perceived surreal nature of the piece. To the group, Three Dancers marked the triumphant return of Picasso to more challenging art. It appeared so difficult to decipher that the group quite likely believed that it must be the work of the unconscious and the aggressiveness clearly betrayed the solemn conservatism that dominated post-war Paris.

Three Dancers isn’t a purely Surrealist painting, despite the Tate's decision to place it there. It is possible that the imagery was derived partially from the living nightmares of a distraught husband or grieving friend. But that appears less likely after considering Picasso’s prevailing attitudes towards women, and his competitive peers as well as his precise forethought for major endeavours like the earlier Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Three Dancers and Guernica later in his career. Three Dancers is clearly planned as a complex journey of relationships, sordid eroticism, death, despair, discord and other perpetual themes throughout Picasso’s career.  It is at once a love story gone awry, a melancholic homage and a violent reminder that Picasso was not turning soft. It is plausible that the ideal of a new, anti-establishment, non-traditional art form spurred Picasso to revisit his current work and explode with a flourish from the restraints of the neo-classical renderings. However, Three Dancers most likely was created during Picasso’s mental revitalization as a reaction to the Surrealists’ potential rather than any vague adherence to their doctrine. Like his references to Matisse, any acknowledgement of the Surrealists seems more like a tactic to place his work beyond them rather than beside them or as a leader amongst them.

In 1932, writer Herbert Read stated that "Picasso was like a sun, a radiant centre of energy with each ray representing a unique aspect of his personal style." Read felt it was impossible to distinguish one style from another since the artist is always the same, larger and more important than any one ray. (Read 1964, p147-149)  The brilliance of Picasso was indeed his diversity, a genre-crossing genius whose skills seemed effortless and whose creative visions seemed endless. He was blessed with such fluid talent that he frequently conquered his rivals in their own genres and still had plenty of energy for personal innovations, of which there were many. Picasso supported his arrogance with talent. Equally at ease with classic traditionalism or abstract figurative, with still life or writhing human emotion, he was never second tier.

Pablo Picasso crowned himself king of the modernists through a stunning mid-career recompilation of his greatness entitled The Three Dancers and proceeded to influence the art world for another half century. Three Dancers is a work that was pre-determined to be complex and confusing. It was also inevitably one of the most important works of modern art . . . by design.

By J.P.Paul
Originally written in 2009
for ICE-Cambridge

Print References

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Web Sources

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