The first work by Picasso to enter the Scottish national collection was an early ‘Blue Period’ painting, Mother and Child, which was presented by Sir Alexander Maitland in 1960 (fig.30). Since then, the Gallery of Modern Art has built up a significant holding of Picasso’s art through gifts, bequests and judicious purchases, including, most recently, a superb cubist drawing and a collage, both acquired through the Henry and Sula Walton fund.
The piece illustrated here is among the most radical and influential of Picasso’s creations using the technique of papier collé (stuck paper), a form of collage that involves pasting pieces of different coloured paper onto a mount. The method was first used by Georges Braque in 1912 and was quickly adopted by Picasso who explored the technique in a large number of works over the ensuing months. Our Head is one of an extended sequence of papiers collés that Picasso made in the spring of 1913. The composition is remarkably simple. Some flimsy pieces of crudely cut paper pasted onto a piece of card provided a basic structure which was then overlaid with a few lines of drawing in black chalk. We might take the image for a still life with some objects arranged on a stand, but a semicircle is drawn to suggest a head, while a little circle within it becomes an eye and an arrow stands for a nose.
Whereas the elaborate, faceted surfaces of Picasso’s earlier cubist paintings usually retained clear links to things that the artist had observed and studied, works such as this took him in a new direction far closer to the threshold of pure abstraction. The technique of papier collé allowed him to fashion an object that denies any traditional notion of artistic skill, suppressing the illusion of space and asserting its independence from reality. Picasso seems to play deliberately on the way that we switch from seeing the image as an abstract pattern of shapes and our natural urge to discern something recognisable from a few visual clues. The sparseness of the composition might also reflect something of Picasso’s mood during what was a difficult period of change in his life. In the spring of 1913, he was staying at Céret, a small town in the foothills of the Pyrenees from where he made trips to Barcelona to visit his dying father. He was also adapting to a relationship with a new mistress, Eva Gouel, who was already showing early signs of the illness that would claim her life two years later in 1915. But whatever lies behind this austere work, its beauty resides in the uncanny ability of the artist to convert a few scraps of paper into expressive gold.
The ease with which Picasso could transform unlikely materials into new and surprising images was greatly admired by the Surrealists. Our Head was purchased in 1923 by the leader of the surrealist movement, André Breton, who illustrated it in his book Le Surréalisme et la peinture (Surrealism and Painting). In 1936, in dire need of money, Breton reluctantly sold it to the British painter, writer and collector Sir Roland Penrose. In 1995 the Head was one of twenty-six paintings and drawings purchased from the Penrose collection in what was one of the greatest modern acquisitions in the history of the Galleries.
This text was originally published in 100 Masterpieces: National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2015.