In the end, there is only Matisse. These were the words spoken by Pablo Picasso when his friend and muse Henri Matisse, the giant of 20th century French painting, died in 1954. In homage to Matisse’s final works, the great cut-outs and colour collages, Picasso entertained his grandchildren one afternoon with paper masks and animal faces. 20 years later, they would provide the basis of Picasso’s sole venture into the world of photography: the little known Diurnes suite.
While Picasso is far better known for his extraordinary cubist paintings and sculptures and his enormous graphic output of linocuts, engravings, lithographs and etchings, photography informed a great portion of his working life. Since the early 1940s he had flirted with the medium in private, documenting in a large number of ‘home-photographs’ the work in his studio and the still life setups from which he drew and painted his compositions.
By 1949, the potential power of photography in art had gripped the artist after the visit to his studio in southern France by the technical wizard Gjon Mili, culminating in the now ubiquitous images of Picasso drawing with light torch on a long exposure photograph.
It wasn’t until 1962, however, that photography would truly enter his own oeuvre. Picasso had known his compatriot André Villers for some time before the two began experimenting with the photographic medium. Villers had until then made his name as a portraitist of the great artists of the 20th century – Miró, Léger, Dalí, and Chagall – and met the artist in 1953 when visiting to photograph him. Over the years the two developed a close working relationship, Picasso gifting Villers his first Rolleiflex camera as the pair played with negatives and the effects of photographic exposure.
Inspired by the natural beauty of their local Provence landscape, the Diurnes images were born of experimentation with the photogram, images produced without a camera by placing objects onto the surface of light-sensitive material, such as bromide paper, and exposing it to light. Using Picasso’s paper cutouts of mischievous fauns, goats, forms and faces, the plan was to overlay each paper ‘mask’ to reveal images of the surrounding countryside beneath, using the photograph as a natural way to texture and tone each mythological portrait.
The title Diurnes – ‘Daytime’ or ‘By Day’, from the Latin diurnus – referred to the daily source of light that enables the photographer to develop his images and the painter to illuminate his landscapes, a collaboration between the artist and the natural world. In response to the suite of prints, the French poet and writer Jacques Prévert produced a semi-surreal script featuring the various creatures of the series as speaking characters in a strange to-and-fro dialogue to accompany their publication.
Prévert’s text also revealed how Picasso and Villers had sought to show the beauty of nature through the everyday scenes of life en Provence, to prove that the sublime could be found as easily in the crumbling walls and wire fences of an old farmhouse or the veins of a dead leaf as the great artistic and cultural feats of man:
Were there only seven wonders of the world on earth, it would not be worth going to see them.
Let alone the sea, women, or the sun, every stone has its story. Every coppice its virgin forest, every ruin its ‘Great Wall of China’, its cliffs of Étretat, and every little street corner its ‘Hanging Gardens’.
The human sense of scale is so rough a tool, and the ugliest lice on the head of the baldest man is a somebody.
The smallest grain of sand is life-sized. But nature is no megalomaniac: she is naturally kind. And in her ‘green room’, she helps both the painter and the photographer to develop their portraits of her scenes, all the echoes of her colours, all the figures of her ballets.
The 30 images included in the suite encompass a variety of themes that had continually pervaded Picasso’s work: the typical Bacchic imagery of fauns and centaurs, women’s faces, bleating goats’ heads and cavorting animals, and the symbol of the theatrical mask. The faces of Diurnes, as Prévert’s poetic text so cleverly suggested, appear like characters in an Ancient Greek comedy, with irreverent smiles set on a distinctly Mediterranean background.
In their Dionysian nature and their playful mood they echo the working method of their two creators who set up their darkroom in the exquisite Provençal mansion of Lou Blauduc in Camargue, sat in the midst of dusty cattle fields and sprawling vineyards.
Though relatively unknown in comparison with his more frequently exhibited series of prints, Picasso’s Diurnes demonstrate the artist’s unfailing ability to innovate and make play with graphic techniques, as well as his unfaltering sense of wit and imagination. An important set of images representing his only significant foray into photography, they remain as clever and original as when they first appeared over half a century ago.