One hundred years ago, Pablo Picasso lived Rome for two months. It was his first trip to Italy. The Ballets Russes was in town and Picasso was eager to begin work on his designs for Parade, the ballet which would open on 18 May 1917 in Paris at the Théâtre du Châtelet.
Two years previously, Picasso had found himself relatively alone in Paris. His mistress Eva Gouel had died prematurely of cancer that year, and friends Georges Braque and Guillaume Apollinaire had been called up because of the ongoing war. The young writer Jean Cocteau, a friend and collaborator of Sergei Diaghilev, was in town, and the two met in June of 1915. Cocteau was keen to involve the composer Erik Satie and Picasso in his project for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Neither Satie or Picasso had worked on a ballet before. By the summer of 1916, all had agreed to collaborate on Parade.
The war saw many scrambling out of Paris, and during the spring of 2017 Picasso decided to join the Ballets Russes in Rome, where they were rehearsing and performing.
During their time in Rome, Cocteau and Picasso stayed at Hotel de Russie, near the piazza del Popolo. Cocteau wrote,
Picasso amazes me every day, to live near him is a lesson in nobility and hard work… A badly drawn figure of Picasso is the result of endless well-drawn figures he erases, corrects, covers over, and which serves him as a foundation. In opposition to all schools he seems to end his work with a sketch.
Picasso's large backcloth for Parade measures 17.25m by 10.60m, making it the largest of his works. The Italian artist Carlo Socrate helped to fill the canvas with paint. It is now displayed in the Centre Pompidou-Metz.
It was in Rome that Picasso met the ballerina Olga Khokhlova, who also attended the opening performance of Parade, and he married her in 1918. In 1921, she would give birth to their son, Paulo, and although they separated after ten years together, they remained married until her death in 1955; Picasso didn't want to divide his estate with her.
Picasso got to know the choreographer of Parade, Leonid Massine, in Rome, and the two became friends. He also met Igor Stravinsky – the beginning of another long-lasting friendship.
Picasso, Stravinsky, Massine and Cocteau visited Pompeii during this period, and in Naples they were introduced to the commedia dell'arte and its characters. The men were inspired by what they saw, and three years later, Picasso, Stravinsky and Massine premiered their new ballet, Pulcinella. It was the ballet Picasso was most proud of.
Satie's music for Parade is exotic and eccentric, though the typewriters, sirens, airplane propellers, ticker tape, lottery wheel that appear in the score were added in by Cocteau, who wrote the ballet's scenario. Cocteau was possibly searching to kindle another riot, like that which had assisted the premiere of The Rite of Spring, in Paris, four years earlier. Satie was completely original in his writing and unique in his musical inclusiveness; he even included jazz styles in his score. While unknown at the time, the practice was immediately taken up by Stravinsky, followed in the 1920s by Copeland, Shostakovich, Ravel, Honegger et al. The booing that Parade received on opening night was mostly for Picasso's Cubist designs, not for the typewriter in the pit. Many in the audience, like Marcel Proust, were won over.
Cocteau got his scandal, but not in the way he was anticipating. On 30 May 1917, Satie sent an insulting postcard to the Octave séré critic Jean Poueigh, who had complimented him on Parade on 18 May, but then published a hostile review in Les Carnets de la semaine on 27 May, even though the music itself wasn't actually mentioned. Poueigh brought a libel case against Satie and won. Satie was sentenced to 8 days in prison with a fine of 100 francs, and 1,000 francs in damages, despite a spirited defence by Cocteau. Satie appealed against the judgement, the sentence was suspended, and the Princesse de Polignac helped Satie to pay his fine.*
The poet Apollinaire, in his programme notes for the premiere, said that Parade had “a kind of surrealism” (“une sorte de surréalisme”). A precursor: the Surrealism movement only came in to being in the 1920s.
In Rome, on 10 April 1917, there was an exhibition of works from Massine's private collection in the foyer of Teatro Costanzi, the home of the Rome Opera. The night before, the Ballet Russes had performed Stravinsky's Firebird and Feux d'artifice, with the composer conducting. For the latter work, Giacomo Balla had designed the backcloth.
Many of the Avant-garde artists on show were present in the theatre that day – Bakst, Balla, Depero, Prampolini – as well as Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Cocteau, Picasso and Massine.
To mark that event, on 10 April 2017 – exactly 100 years later – the Rome Opera will present Picasso a Roma cento anni fa – partitura d'arte, danza e genio. Actors Maddalena Crippa and Massimo Popolizio will evoke those heady days of extraordinary creativity, with musical interludes by Satie and Stravinsky.
Tickets for the evening are available at €10 – operaroma.it
* From Satie the Composer by Robert Orledge.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.