Picasso’s ballet years, from Parade to 5th position

At 96, the photographer David Douglas Duncan can still remember the moment, more than 55 years ago, when he was brave enough to ring the doorbell outside the gate of Pablo Picasso’s home in Cannes.

The artist was not expecting him. Duncan knew little about Picasso but was simply following up on the idea of his friend and colleague, the photographer, Robert Capa, who suggested he might photograph Picasso one day.

Picasso’s lover, Jacqueline Roque, opened the gate at Picasso’s villa, La Californie.

Duncan explained who he was and what he was hoping to do.

As Duncan recently told Philippe Dagen, a journalist from Le Monde, moments later he was taking his first portrait of Picasso, soaping himself in the bath.

As Dagen wrote, “From then on until the early 1960s, he was the artist’s main photographer, certainly the most constant and the one who enjoyed the greatest access. He could come and go as he pleased at Picasso’s various homes”.

“You cannot imagine how simple it all was”, Duncan told Dagen.

“We didn’t talk much, maybe 50 words in a whole day. My language was photography.”

Duncan’s many images included the playful shots of Picasso attempting to copy ballet positions and steps demonstrated by Jacqueline.

Picasso seemed to pretend that ballet was, to him, a foreign language but was this really an affectation? By this time, Picasso knew more than a little about the art form, if not the exact steps and positions a dancer practises daily.

His first wife was Olga Stepanovna Khokhlova, a member of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

They married in July 1918. The previous year, she had danced in the premiere of Parade at the Théâtre du Châtelet. For this Diaghilev ballet, choreographed by Leonide Massine to music by Erik Satie, Picasso designed the costumes and set.

He went on to collaborate with Diaghilev for the ballets Le Tricorne, Pulcinella, Mercure and Le train bleu.

Picasso drew or painted Olga several times, at least once in a ballet pose for his Group of Dancers (pencil on paper), 1919 – 1920 in which she is seen lying in the foreground.

The couple separated in 1935, but they remained married until Olga’s death in Cannes in 1955.

In the most recent biography of Diaghilev, (published in 2009), the author, Sjeng Scheijen, wrote that Picasso was “not blind to the benefits of marrying into Diaghilev’s company.

“The artist had begun to cultivate a more refined appearance and manners under the influence of the great impresario. The coarse Bohemian from Montmartre traded in his overalls and espadrilles for plus-fours and ties, relishing the official dinners and receptions that Diaghilev took him to.

“Picasso now had the chance to show off his art to a larger, richer, more international and diverse public than would have ever been possible in the flashy but still decidedly marginal world of the Parisian avant-garde”.

Picasso had many lovers but married only twice. His second wife, Jacqueline, whom he married in 1961, was 27 when they met.

They remained married until Picasso’s death in 1973. Jacqueline’s last years were disastrous as she battled Picasso’s family members and Francoise Gilot, his former mistress. In 1986, Jacqueline committed suicide.

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Picasso steps into a jig, photo © David Douglas Duncan

Jacqueline shows Pablo some ballet positions, photo © David Douglas Duncan

Picasso with Jacqueline Roque, photo © David Douglas Duncan

David Douglas Duncan’s first photo of Picasso, at home on the Riviera, 1956

Picasso’s curtain for Parade, 1917

Piano music for Parade, 1917

Picasso’s portrait of Olga Khokhlova

Picasso’s Group of Dancers, 1919-20. Olga Khokhlova in the foreground

Picasso with Olga Khokhlova

Picasso, photo © David Douglas Duncan