Picasso's Head of a Woman: From Steel to Concrete

Nasher Sculpture Center
Jul 24, 2019 8:02PM

In March 2016, I traveled to Paris to participate in a conference devoted to the sculpture of Pablo Picasso held at the Musée Picasso. It took place during the museum’s acclaimed exhibition of Picasso’s three-dimensional work co-organized with the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Raymond and Patsy Nasher collection includes seven sculptures by Picasso, four of which played important roles in the recent wave of interest in this aspect of the artist’s work. The Nasher loaned Flowers in a Vase (Fleurs dans un vase) to the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition (see The Nasher magazine, Fall 2015 issue. Head of a Woman (Fernande) appeared with other casts of the same work in the Paris version of the show. My talk at the conference focused on the Nasher’s large Head of a Woman (Tête de femme) and its sources in a group of smaller sculptures that includes the painted sheet metal Head of a Woman (Tête de femme), also called Jacqueline, also in the Nasher collection. While in Paris, I was able to research correspondence between Picasso and Carl Nesjar (1920–2015), the Norwegian artist who worked with Picasso on a series of sculptures in sandblasted concrete, to provide a fuller understanding of the work’s genesis and importance to Picasso’s ongoing engagement with sculpture.

The monumental concrete-and-gravel Head of a Woman (Tête de femme) has been on display in the garden of the Nasher Sculpture Center since the museum opened in 2003. Its origins lie in a visit made to Picasso in January 1957 by the Norwegian artist Carl Nesjar, who went to the south of France to ask Picasso to make a lithograph for the Aktuell Kunst society, started by the Workers’ Party of Norway to offer prints by subscription at reasonable prices. Introduced to Nesjar through a mutual acquaintance, the artist Eugène Fidler, and appreciating the democratic impulse behind the concept, Picasso readily agreed. Their conversation took an unexpected turn as Fidler encouraged Nesjar to show Picasso photographs of the new government building in Oslo with wall engravings that Nesjar had executed in Betograve, a new artistic process developed by the building’s architect Erling Viksjø, and the engineer Sverre Jystad.

In Betograve, forms packed tightly with gravel are filled with concrete; upon drying, the concrete surface can be sandblasted to reveal the underlying aggregate. The artistic possibilities were considerable, as the sandblasting could range from large areas to narrow lines. Picasso was intrigued, and on Nesjar’s next visit, Picasso agreed to allow him to use the Betograve technique to make monumental engraved drawings based on his work on walls of the Oslo government building. Picasso would make four drawings for the project, and gave Nesjar permission to base another wall on figures from his 1946 painting Triptych. Picasso’s enthusiastic response led Nesjar to make another proposal: to use the Betograve technique to create a large sculpture by Picasso. If the results failed to satisfy the artist, it was agreed that the sculpture would be destroyed.

Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman (Tête de femme), 1958. Gravel and concrete, 120 1/8 x 43 1/4 x 55 7/8 in. (305.1 x 109.9 x 141.9 cm.) Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection, Nasher Sculpture Center. © 2018 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Kevin Todora

The outcome was the 10-foot-high Head of a Woman, now in the Nasher collection. Nesjar’s photographs of it so pleased Picasso that the sculpture became the first of more than a dozen monumental Betograve sculptures by Picasso made in collaboration with Nesjar. Head of a Woman’s experimental status as the first sculpture in the Betograve technique sets it apart somewhat from the collaborations that would follow. Nesjar’s letters to Picasso show the surprising speed with which the two men developed a working relationship and friendship after their introduction in January 1957. Three months later Nesjar wrote of his plans to return to France to continue their lithography project. His summer visit to Picasso at La Californie, the artist’s home on the Côte d’Azur, proved momentous: Not only would Nesjar secure drawings for the Aktuell Kunst lithograph as well as the Oslo government building wall engravings, but he would also begin to talk seriously with Picasso about the possibility of using the Betograve technique to make a monumental sculpture.

That their engagement expanded so profoundly turned on two important factors. The first of these was a change in Picasso’s work since he and Nesjar first met at the beginning of the year. At the time of their introduction in the winter, Picasso was drawing and painting various subjects, including portraits of his companion Jacqueline Roque, bullfight scenes, and fantastic heads and figures. By the time Nesjar returned in late June, Picasso had returned to making sculpture, with a small group of planar sculptures and a number of related paintings based on the motif of the head of a woman. From this body of work would come Head of a Woman with Black Curly Hair (Tête de femme â la chevelure noire frisée), the painting selected as the source of the Aktuell Kunst lithograph, Nesjar would take a drawing based on this painting to the printer Fernand Mourlot in Paris after leaving the south of France, and a photograph of Nesjar and Picasso with the drawing subsequently circulated in the Norwegian press as news of Picasso’s involvement in the government building project spread.

Lately revived in depictions of Roque, the motif of a woman’s head poised atop a long, slender neck was a subject with a long history in the artist’s oeuvre. Predecessors include the 1913 charcoal Figure (Personnage) of 1913; the brass-and-iron Head (Tête), 1928; 1943’s Bust of a Woman (Buste de femme), made from wire, string, and pencil on cardboard; and Woman with a Key (La Femme à la clé), 1954-57, constructed from fired clay and a real key, then cast in bronze. The last of these, with its elongated, tubular neck and life-size scale, may have particularly prompted Picasso to undertake a further exploration of the theme.

Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman (Tête de femme), also called Head of Jacqueline, 1957. Painted steel, 30 3/8 x 13 3/4 x 10 1/8 in. (77.2 x 34.9 x 25.7 cm.). Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection, Nasher Sculpture Center © 2018 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Tom Jenkins

In the spring and summer of 1957, Picasso made five sculptures featuring a woman’s head atop a long slender pole. Rather than being folded, as in the heads inspired by Sylvette David that preceded them, or punctuated with cut-out plays of positive and negative space, as in the sheet-metal sculptures that would follow, the 1957 heads feature discrete planes slotted into place atop a vertical pole. Spurred by Picasso’s portraits of Roque, the sculptures in turn fed the artist’s further explorations of the motif in painting.

The second factor steering Nesjar’s summer conversations with Picasso toward discussion of monumental Betograve sculptures was photography. In Nesjar’s letter of June 28, 1957, he mentions a conversation with Picasso of the day before and makes plans to visit the next day: Nesjar’s visits with Picasso thus coincided exactly with David Douglas Duncan’s photography sessions in Picasso’s studio, documenting, among other things, Picasso’s engagement with the two planar sculptures that would soon become the dual sources of the Betograve Head of a Woman: the Nasher collection’s steel Head of a Woman, and the lone wooden version of the five heads, now in the Musée Picasso (see photo, page 31).12 Several of Duncan’s photos show Picasso painting the Nasher’s steel Head of a Woman; as the other heads are visible in his photographs of the studio from this visit, it seems likely that this was the last of the group of five, and Picasso’s last sheet-metal sculpture until he took up the process again with Lionel Prejger some three years later.

The likely coinciding of Duncan’s and Nesjar’s visits introduces another reason for the selection of these heads as models for the first Betograve sculpture. As other scholars have noted, their kinship with Picasso’s previous work includes their relation to compositions such as the 1928 Head (mentioned above) that are in turn associated with Picasso’s work on the Apollinaire monument, the artist’s years-long attempt to create a large public sculpture dedicated to the memory of the artist’s friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. A 1929 painting13 merges a ferocious head with a gray monolith, with tiny figures beneath creating an impression of enormous scale. The parallels with such works heighten in the context of what are perhaps the best-known photographs from Duncan’s session, namely Picasso’s creation of a mise-en-scène for the Musée Picasso’s pole sculpture, with cut-out figures, a feather-duster palm tree, and a sketched backdrop on a blank canvas behind, transforming the sculpture into a veritable maquette for an enlarged, monumental piece.

Photography was also an important part of Nesjar’s work – he used it extensively for documentation of the Betograve projects, and his correspondence with Picasso includes frequent mention of photographs enclosed with his letters.15 Although Duncan does not mention Nesjar in his accounts, the photographer’s shots of Picasso’s studio make it possible to establish Nesjar’s concurrent presence.16 Several photographs taken by Nesjar, usually dated to 1964 or 1965, show Picasso at La Californie, bare-chested and sporting a distinctively patterned pair of shorts or swimming trunks. Picasso wears them in the photograph with Nesjar and the Aktuell Kunst drawing, and in photos taken in the studio that show Picasso alongside, or gazing at, various pole sculptures—in one, Picasso poses with the Nasher’s steel head, still unfinished and surrounded by the small cut-out figures from the mise-en-scène with Duncan with the lightly sketched backdrop on the blank canvas still visible behind him.

Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman (Tête de femme), also called Head of Jacqueline, 1957. Painted steel, 30 3/8 x 13 3/4 x 10 1/8 in. (77.2 x 34.9 x 25.7 cm.). Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection, Nasher Sculpture Center © 2018 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Tom Jenkins

Did Picasso’s exchanges with Nesjar about Betograve and the architectural project in Oslo spur his playful fantasies before Duncan’s camera? Or did Picasso’s ongoing immersion in the “Head of a Woman” motif during the spring and summer of 1957 revive thoughts of monumental sculpture? However the idea emerged, less than three weeks later, Nesjar was writing to Picasso from Norway, “It would be very interesting to make a concrete sculpture after one of your iron sculptures...We talked about five to six meters. It would be a question of finding a dimension that harmonizes with that of a human being. (See photo, sculpture no. 2)" He proposed that on his return to France in the fall to bring Picasso a proof of the lithograph from Paris, he would make more photos of this sculpture, as well as drawings of it for the enlargement. But in late August he explained that an experiment was already underway: “Currently, we are doing the formwork of a ‘sculpture proof’ in half-size (around 3 meters in height) according to the photos I made at your home.”

In the garden of Viksjø’s home outside Larvik and perhaps at the architect’s urging, Nesjar took advantage of the milder weather before winter’s onset to proceed, using the photos of Picasso’s pole sculptures made during his previous visit as points of reference. He built wooden frameworks to contain the gravel-and-concrete slab forming the planes of the figure’s head, and mounted scaffolding to “souffler” the head’s details.20 The experimental nature of this trial run is apparent from photos of the fabrication in the Musée Picasso’s photo archives. In one, the facial features sketched on the proper left side of the wooden form actually belong to the proper right profile of the source maquette, a reversal corrected in the final sculpture. In another photo, the treatment of the cylindrical supporting post had been sketched in differently than seen in the final result. By October 27, 1957, work on the sculpture was likely complete, as Nesjar wrote to Picasso that he had a collection of photos to show him on his upcoming visit. Nesjar was reportedly unhappy with the sculpture and had to be dissuaded by Viksjø from destroying the work, but when he showed Picasso the photos, the artist was delighted.

The timeline reconstructed here from Nesjar’s correspondence and photos suggests that the Nasher’s Betograve Head of a Woman should be dated 1957 rather than 1958. (In fact, after Nesjar’s letters from the fall of 1957 and his visit to Picasso with photos of the work, all mention of the sculpture vanishes from his correspondence.) Head of a Woman’s status as an experimental “sculpture proof” may also account for its composition, which combines aspects of the Nasher’s steel Head of a Woman with those of the Musée Picasso’s wooden Head of a Woman, both of which were made from the same cardboard maquette, seen near the two heads in photographs Duncan took of Picasso’s studio at the time of Nesjar’s visit.

Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman (Tête de femme), 1957. Cut wood and paint, 31 x 12 1/2 x 10 1/4 in. (78.5 x 32 x 26 cm). Musée national Picasso-Paris, Dation Picasso, 1979. © 2018 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée Picasso de Paris)/Mathieu Rabeau

Despite their structural similarities, the two heads are painted very differently from each other. In the Musée Picasso’s wooden head, the proper left side of the sculpture is a simple black or dark gray silhouette, recalling Picasso’s inclusion of many such profiles in his two-dimensional works. On the proper right – Nesjar’s source for the proper right profile of the Betograve Head – a great staring eye gazes out at the viewer, but as the viewer moves around the sculpture, a second, frontally oriented eye quickly comes into view, and in addition to the profile, the countenance resolves into a staring skull. In the Nasher’s steel sculpture, Picasso became more elaborate with the proper left side, spreading a combined profile and fully frontal face across the abutting sheets. The result is a series of often contradictory views that nonetheless evoke a single head, with the back of the sculpture conflating rear of the head and profile, hair pulled back and both ears improbably occupying the same plane. The virtuoso left profile, which Nesjar would use for the proper left profile of the Betograve work, contrasts strongly with the simpler rendering of the right profile, a dichotomy previously deployed in the folded steel busts of Sylvette David.

Although Nesjar’s letter of July 18 refers to “sculpture no. 2” as the model for a proposed Betograve sculpture, it is not clear which sculpture he meant. “Sculpture no. 2” may refer to the Nasher’s steel head, as it was the second sculpture to be made from the templates of the cardboard maquette, and Picasso was completing it at the time of Nesjar’s visit. Instead, the resulting “sculpture proof” combines aspects of both this and its wooden sibling – the proper left profile of the Nasher’s head and the proper right profile and banded pole of the Musée Picasso’s – and adds a few unique elements. The back view of the Betograve head, a contrast of smooth concrete and exposed gravel, is not seen in either of the smaller sculptures, and the four planes of the head meet in the concrete version at right angles, whereas in the smaller versions, the back plane, with the figure’s gathered hair, is set at an angle.

Since Betograve was initially used on the flat surfaces of walls, it was logical that Picasso’s planar sculptures would be selected as the starting point for a sculptural collaboration, since these sculptures shared with the Norwegian technique a creative combination of material, line, and flat image. In the sheet-metal sculptures, Picasso used planar surfaces to generate works confounding expectations of the continuous three-dimensional contours typical of much modern sculpture. Each version of the Head of a Woman sculptures presents sharply delineated glimpses of individual forms, which can pass quickly from one anatomical reference to another, an eye reconfiguring into an ear with a slight shift in point of view.

Nesjar unquestionably used the more striking of the profile views from each of the smaller sculptures, and moving the back plane to a 90-degree position would have undoubtedly simplified construction of the sculpture as well as Nesjar’s sandblasting of the requisite areas. His manipulation of Head of a Woman’s composition paralleled his procedure with the Oslo wall engravings: When Nesjar transferred the figures from Triptych onto the wall of the government building, he determined that three figures were too many for the wall, and so he removed one of them. Picasso approved of his decision after the fact, but he always had the option to reject Nesjar’s efforts.

Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman (Tête de femme), 1958. Gravel and concrete, 120 1/8 x 43 1/4 x 55 7/8 in. (305.1 x 109.9 x 141.9 cm.) Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection, Nasher Sculpture Center. © 2018 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Kevin Todora

As many observers have noted, with their staring gazes and disembodied heads poised like trophies atop poles, the 1957 Head of a Woman sculptures have a strongly totemic character. Their atavistic character lends them an intensity belying their modest size, and interestingly, Picasso’s further forays into monumental works included attempts to render all the pole sculptures at larger sizes. In 1965, Nesjar succeeded in executing a monumental Head of a Woman in Sweden, and he likewise secured Picasso’s approval for Betograve versions of two of the other heads, although neither project went forward.

Picasso never saw in person any of the Betograve sculptures Nesjar made: Their collaboration had its origins in photography, and their working relationship would continue to be negotiated with and through photographs. From the first, Nesjar worked from photographs of Picasso’s sculptures, as Picasso did not want him to remove the works from his studio. Nesjar would then use photographs of the sculptures and of the prospective site to create a photomontage, showing the small work scaled up, for Picasso to approve with a signature and date. Nesjar would base his fabrication on photographs and measurements of the small sculptures made during visits to Picasso, then send the artist photos of the resulting sculpture in situ for his final approval. The printmaking project that initially brought them together served as a conceptual model for Picasso, who approved some of Nesjar’s photomontages with a notation usually reserved for prints: “bon à tirer” [good to pull, i.e., from the press].

Head of a Woman spent four decades in the garden of Viksjø’s summer house, and today still resides in a garden, at the Nasher. In 2012 it underwent conservation. Due to concrete’s porosity, the metal armature inside the sculpture had begun to rust and swell, causing the concrete and gravel to pop off in two small areas. Fortunately, the Nasher’s then-conservator John Campbell was able to stop the rusting and put the detached pieces back into place. Considering all its years outdoors in the disparate climates of Norway and Texas and its status as the first attempt to make a monumental sculpture using a newly developed process, this “sculpture proof” has aged quite well.

Written by Catherine Craft, Ph.D., Curator, Nasher Sculpture Center

Nasher Sculpture Center