Symbolic Cubism or Cubist Symbolism: La Parade

design for the stage curtain for the 1917 production of La Parade, tempera
the American Manager the French Manager the American Girl

What exactly was La Parade?  It is difficult even to label it: ballet or play? As a ballet it was performed by the Ballet Russes; it was a surrealist play written by the surrealist poet Jean Cocteau, with modern music by Erik Satie, and the costumes and stage designs by Picasso, themselves a mixture of symbolism and cubism.  With respect to Picasso's contributions, there are two things we should establish at the outset: his work for the play both crystallizes and manifests earlier interests of his as well as some which come later.  The themes, in other words, extend throughout his career; the expression of these themes changes and in a sense, their expression in La Parade can be seen as a pivotal moment bringing together his symbolist tendencies, his early naturalism, and his cubism in a union which may not be nearly so perfected either before or after.  (That, of course, is a value judgment on my part with which you may care to disagree.)

Boy Leading A Horse, 1906 left side of curtain

The stage curtain seems at first sight to represent a return to Picasso’s early symbolist and more naturalistic style of painting.  But it is more whimsical and fantastical than the early paintings, just as the cubist costumes are more whimsical and fantastical than Picasso’s cubist paintings.  The curtain is important in this context because it provides one level of artistic reality; it becomes an almost literal “backdrop”against which the cubist characters become something torn out of another level of reality.  “Pasted” against the curtain, in visual terms the performance is a three-dimensional montage or collage.  Picasso spoke of his intentions: “How effective it would be to exploit the contrast between these characters as ‘real’ as pasted ‘chromos’ in a canvas and the more solemnly transposed unhuman, or superhuman, characters who would become in fact the false reality on stage, to the point of reducing the real dancers to the stature of puppets.”

Family of Saltimbanques, 1905 right side of curtain

The story involves three characters called Managers, two acrobats, a Chinese conjurer, an American girl.  The scenes are bizarre, combining magic tricks and improbable events without a real sequence to them, performed against a musical background consisting of the sounds of sirens, of typewriters, of other real sounds, and performed by characters wearing costumes which looked like cubist constructions and the advertising sandwich boards worn by street vendors in the Paris streets, looking like the harlequins and acrobats of Picasso’s earlier paintings from his years before formulating cubism, and looking like the harlequins and acrobats of his cubist years, as well.  The harlequin is an important “character” for Picasso throughout his career: a figure who seems to represent the experience of isolation and of being an outsider or outcast, but because of his association with the clown and the acrobat, he also represents the agility or skilled performance of an artist.  In his early paintings, the harlequin is more of the outcast; in Picasso’s later cubist paintings, the harlequin returns in a form which closely resembles the “guitar/human being” construction–a figure which is musical instrument and musician united into one, autonomous entity.

Harlequin Playing a Guitar, 1918 Costume for the Chinese Conjurer
member of the ballet (Chinese conjurer), 1917 photo Three Dancers, 1925
The Harlequin, 1915 The French Manager (costume design) actor wearing the costume, photo, 1917
Guitar and Man, 1912 The American Manager actor wearing the costume, photo, 1917
stage set for La Parade, photograph, 1917

The ballet as a whole becomes a ballet of relationships between real pieces and imaginary pieces, between “floating” events related to the real-life world of popular culture and cabarets and the high art world of ballet and painting.  The use of sounds and noise taken from real life does the same thing with the auditory environment of the ballet.  The actions of the characters, which seem random and unplanned, as they might seem at a fairground or carnival, calls into question the meaning of the idea of a composition, whether it is a play, a ballet, or a work of art.  Finally, the existence of a  real audience for the play, an audience who must somehow make sense of all these relationships,  takes the puzzles offered by the stage to the world beyond the stage and more emphatically questions the relationship of inside to outside, of front to back, of foreground to background, of spectator to actor.  Not only is this a performance where Picasso’s cubist constructions have come to life; it is also a world in which the shifting dialectics and puzzles of modernism appear to exist in a living, three-dimensional form.

*all of the artwork on this page is by Picasso, so I omitted his name from the captions.