How WWII and a wife shaped Picasso’s bronzes

Pablo Picasso, Tête de femme de profil (Marie­-Thérèse), Boisgeloup, 1931, bronze, sculpture, Musée national Picasso – Paris (Credit: © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris), © Succession Picasso 2018)

Researchers have non-invasively analyzed a priceless group of 39 bronzes and 11 painted sheet metal sculptures by Pablo Picasso.

“We now can begin to write a new chapter in the history of this prolific giant of modern art,” says Francesca Casadio, the Grainger Executive Director of Conservation and Science at the Art Institute and co-director of the Northwestern University/Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS).

Emeline Pouyet, a materials scientist and NU-ACCESS postdoctoral fellow, created the diagram of bronze compositions over which Picasso’s production could be mapped. With their portable instruments, which use X-ray fluorescence spectrometry, the researchers could easily analyze the priceless objects in the Musée national Picasso-Paris galleries and storage, without the need to move them.

Using non-invasive analysis of elements at a work’s surface, NU-ACCESS has amassed the world’s largest art database of alloy “fingerprints” for early 20th-century fine arts bronzes. More than a decade in the making, the database includes data on 350 works of art by the leading artists that came to Paris from all over the world to achieve the finest casts of their bronzes. This data is key to NU-ACCESS’s “elemental fingerprinting” technique.

The researchers used this technique to analyze the alloys in the Picasso bronzes for clues about how, when, and where they were cast.

Scientific analysis of the metal alloys of the bronze sculptures, coupled with recently discovered archival information, revealed that five of Picasso’s 1941 and 1942 casts without a foundry mark were made by Robecchi’s foundry. One of these sculptures is Head of a Woman, in Profile (modeled 1931, cast 1941).

The study provides provenance for these works and helps define the activities of Picasso and the Robecchi foundry during war times. (For the bronzes cast in the 1940s by Robecchi, Picasso first modeled the works in the 1930s in plaster.)

“In the context of increased material studies of Picasso’s painting practices, our study extends the potential of scientific investigations to the artist’s three-dimensional productions,” Pouyet says. “Material evidence from the sculptures themselves can be unlocked by scientific analysis for a deeper understanding of Picasso’s bronze sculpture-making process and the history of artists, dealers, and foundrymen in the production of modern sculpture.”

The researchers also discovered that in this short two-year period during World War II, the composition of the alloy used by Robecchi varied significantly—possibly because of the scarcity of raw metals, German appropriation of non-ferrous metals for the war efforts, and re-use of scrap metal from brass objects of ordinary use.

This work took place in partnership with the Musée national Picasso-Paris staff and Clare Finn, a private conservator in London and an expert on the dynamics of fine arts castings during World War I and World War II.

Picasso made a relatively small number of sculptures (approximately 700, roughly one-sixth of his output in paintings) and issued few numbered editions of his bronzes, Casadio says. The circumstances of much of his early production as well as that of the sculptures cast during World War II have been unclear. Many of the bronzes that the NU-ACCESS team analyzed are unique casts.

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Casadio discussed the findings at a February 17 press at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Austin, Texas.

In its analysis of Picasso’s sheet metal sculptures, the research team is the first to discover the use of the precious metal silver to render the details of the hair, eyes, and other facial features on the cast-iron sheet, polychrome sculpture titled Head of a Woman (late 1962). The artist’s second wife, Jacqueline Roque, inspired the piece.

Analysis also sheds light on the productive relationship of Picasso with craftsmen in a workshop in the south of France. For this project, Ludovic Bellot-Gurlet, a molecular spectroscopist in Paris who has developed a mobile lab for paint and pigment analysis, worked side by side with NU-ACCESS scientists and their elemental analysis tools. They figuratively peeled back layers of paint to uncover what paintwork was done by Picasso to the sheet metal sculptures and what was applied by the workshop.

This major project with the Musée national Picasso-Paris was possible through NU-ACCESS, which the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation supports.

Source: Northwestern University