Pablo Picasso’s Le Tricorne, a two-story painted curtain completed in 1919, has endured an Odyssean journey along its decades-long route to its current location. The piece was drafted over many years, executed in just three weeks in a studio in Covent Garden, displayed during a single production of one ballet, and eventually cut and sold in 1956 to the owner of the Seagram Building. What survived of Le Tricorne was hung in The Four Seasons in the new building’s ground level—a posh exhibition space in addition to a restaurant, which also displayed the works of Joan Miró and Mark Rothko. The Seagram Building itself was designed by Philip Johnson and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, making it a testament to the International style of the 1950s. As a result, the entire building and all of its contents—including Le Tricorne—were deemed a New York City landmark monument in 1988.
Despite its landmarked status, however, controversy arose around the fate of Picasso’s work in 2014 when the owner of the Seagram Building Aby Rosen announced his plan to reconstruct the wall on which it hangs—a move that would require him to sell, store, or dispose of the work. The decision was ostensibly for the purpose of restoring the deteriorating structure of the wall, though Rosen is alleged to have had little love for Le Tricorne. Months of controversy ensued, including articles in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal which featured critics and conservators debating the artistic merits of Picasso’s work and the responsibility of collectors to preserve their possessions. The New York Landmarks Conservancy led the charge to salvage Le Tricorne, claiming that it was a staple of the experience of many New Yorkers, and it was they who ultimately arranged to have it placed at the New-York Historical Society. It was thought that this museum, the oldest in New York, would be the perfect fit, with its charge to exhibit the “dynamism of history, and its influence on the world of today.”
Pablo Picasso’s Le Tricorne was born from a true collision of cultural influences and players: a Spanish favela, a Russian patron, and a London performance. Created as a backdrop curtain to Sergei Diaghilev’s avant-garde ballet, Le Tricorne was a major aesthetic cornerstone to performace El dombrero de tres picos (or Le Tricorne), which was performed by Diaghilev’s company Ballets Russes. Ballets Russes was a forward-thinking artistic collective that moved the needle on modern performance. It brought designers, artists, and performers into tight collaborations. From Matisse to Coco Chanel to Debussy, artists spanning a variety of disciplines exchanged ideas to orchestrate entire dance performances that were a real modern smorgasbord of music, costumes, set design, and choreography. Ballets Russes also introduced the public to, and popularized, Russian folklore. The company looked to innovate, dismiss Classicism, and produce a highly engaging aesthetic alongside its choreography.
Le Tricorne, produced for a 1919 production of the ballet in London, emerged from the center of this artistic storm. It provides the visual backbone for a ballet—set in the eighteenth century—about whimsical Spanish fantasies, magical and flirtatious seduction, deep loyalty, and joyous freedom.
As it is displayed now, the curtain lacks much of its original glory. This piece was once part of a larger curtain, likely over three times its current size. Diaghilev found it difficult to find patrons for his more adventurous creative projects, and as a result he often explored alternative routes for raising funds for his work. In the case of Picasso’s curtain, Diaghilev cut it, isolated the central frame (a “mere” nineteen feet high), and sold it to a Swiss collector in 1957.
While Le Tricorne’s location under the roof of a cultural institution, rather than a restaurant, means it will be studied, examined, interpreted, and appreciated for posterity, does the mission of the New-York Historical Society really align with the power of this Picasso? And, is Picasso’s Le Tricorne really more of a testament to a classic New York experience than it is a testament to the development of the artistic communities and movements of the twentieth century? The claim that this piece, despite its renowned creator, is powerful because it shows the “dynamism of history” might actually be giving it too much credit. The power of the piece lies in its status as a visual emblem of radical artistic collaboration in the twentieth century, as produced by Ballets Russes. Its power comes also from the fact that Picasso worked out many aesthetic challenges in this piece, on a scale and for a purpose he hadn’t previously attempted. Its formal characteristics place it at a crossroads between Classicism and Cubism, a point of tension not often present in Picasso’s individual works.
Picasso carves out, and elevates, the forms of his compositional elements in Le Tricone. Strong, dark lines and blocks of heavy, singularly colored fabric define the hatted man and shrouded women in the middleground. This is a departure from a Classical style of painting in which robes and fabric were used to emphasize the fine moments of transition within a figurative position. The style of the cloth here instead points to Picasso’s Cubist eye, which places more importance on honoring the form of the fabric material instead of its role in any larger naturalistic aim of the work. Similarly empathetic to form is the white plate that tilts toward the viewer in the foreground, which sits parallel to the table. By positioning the plate in this way, Picasso shows off as much of its form as possible, refusing to have it recede in the scene, as a naturalistic depiction of it would require. This is a solution to an acutely Cubist dilemma: how can one give entire, and equal compositional weight to every form of a three-dimensional object when it is translated into a two-dimensional painting? While there is a nod to Classical tradition in his work, there is a deeply formal Cubist current dominating its construction.
The work is an exciting, if not curious, acquisition for the New-York Historical Society. It displays a wealth of visual information, and we have much to learn from its study. Its exploration of Cubism and Classicism, and its role in a ballet, position it as a demonstration of the then-growing interdisciplinary avant-garde. We would be wise not to look to Le Tricorne as an exhibitor of the full dynamism of history. Rather, we ought to narrow our focus so that we may more acutely appreciate the way piece captures a delicate moment in Picasso’s artistic exploration and in the broader world of modern collaborative art.