A note on cinema’s influence on mid Twentieth-Century Art – 1

Walking around the extraordinary exhibition of Picasso Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, I was surprised, amused and charmed by several caricatures Picasso drew for Jaume Sabartés, primarily those featuring movie stars such as Esther Williams and Lana Turner (see below). Picasso had met Sabartés in 1899 and they remained close friends until his death. In 1935 Sabartés moved to Paris, became Picasso’s full-time secretary and was later the driving force in founding the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, which opened in 1963, a considerable feat of political tact given Picasso’s Communist credentials and the Falangist Franco regime then ruling Spain.

In Picasso Portraits (London: National Portrait Gallery, 2016), Elizabeth Cowling tells us ‘Picasso presented Sabartés with dozens of portrait-caricatures. While poking fun at his appearance, they also referred ironically to aspects of his personality and tasks he had performed on Picasso’s behalf, and were thus in-jokes that only they or their intimates could fully appreciate’ (p.193).

Sabartés by Picasso in 1901, 1902, 1900 and 1939.

Williams and Turner were two of the biggest stars of the early 50s, both at MGM, both in different ways signs created, consumed and exchanged on the basis of their meanings. Turner was probably most explicitly associated with sex, and in its most transgressive and scandalous aspects. Williams was a picture of wholesomeness yet arguably no one’s body was on more public display throughout the heyday of her swimming movies, the late forties and early 50s. Both were clearly presented as objects of desire. Here Esther Williams is seen in a still from Charles Walters’ Dangerous When Wet (1953). The Lana Turner picture on the left seems simply to be an archetypal cheesecake publicity photo of the era, not associated with any particular film. As Cowling notes, both caricatures were drawn on pin-ups of movie stars distributed in issues of Ciné-Révélation, which claimed to be ‘Le plus grand hébdomadaire du cinéma’ (The greatest weekly devoted to the cinema).

The caricatures are sweet and endearing: a podgy, be-spectacled elderly Sabatér needing a staircase to reach the amazon swimmer, or innocently nuzzling Lana Turner. The desire, sexual but innocent, out of reach, inescapable, unhidden. Was it the cinema that gave rise to these desires or was it simply that it was pictures of beautiful half-dressed women? Cowling offers a hint. Picasso lived near Cannnes and ‘The association of Cannes with the movie industry provides the immediate context for the series: in the 1950s Picasso had superstar status himself and being seen with him was considered excellent publicity by rising stars such as Brigitte Bardot. But hoarding pin-ups from movie magazines of the 1950s was no different from collecting photos and postcards of entertainers and celebrities, as Picasso had begun doing before the First World War’ (p.195).

That they are pictures of entertainers and celebrities makes the desire more permissible, entertainers are on public display, and more innocent — they’re safely out of reach. These lovely works are to me an example of the extent to which cinema had invaded the Western popular imagination in general and that of the art world in particular. They are also an example of Picasso’s greatness.Take the Esther Williams image. He’s succumbing to it as an image of desire but also pointing out its lacks in relationto his own erotic imagination. It’s like an embodyment of Marcuse’s critique of the way the culture industry tames sexuality and renders it one dimensional but re-endowed with a dialectical. He both admires its products and renders them unruly, puts the hair back into Esther’s armpits and her crotch. It’s fab.

It’s interesting to note that the shapes, structures and impulses of these works —  minor ones in Picasso’s catalogue, mere doodles to a friend — are the same as would constitute major works of great mid-twentieth century pop artists such as Ray Johnson and Edouardo Polozzi (see below). Something to pursue in a later note.


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