In the first half of the 1910s, Picasso was rejecting tradition with his Cubist images in Paris — he was encircled by his usual bande, as well as an increasingly sophisticated group of intellectuals, artists, dealers, and collectors; the bourgeoisie opportunities opened up by his rising notoriety were nearly, but not exactly, at odds with his bohemian sensibility. By 1916, he was in Italy, the seat of classicism, fast at work on — of all things — a ballet. He’d shifted; something important had happened. But what?
The answer is within this note to a briefly unwell friend, penned in 1916: “My dear Cocteau,” it begins. “I am quite sad that you are ill. I hope that you will be well soon and that I will see you… I have good ideas for our theater story, we shall talk about it.”*
Just as his collaboration with George Braque had birthed Cubism, and how his friendship with Apollinaire had paved his Blue and Rose period subjects a path to language, Picasso had a new friend, paired with a burgeoning form. This transition was onset by the Great War, whose great chaos had taken his old friends away from Paris (including Braque, Apollinaire, and his dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler) but had left him — left him apperceptive, culturally and phenomenologically sensitive as always, and rather lonely. In 1915, he met the multi-generic, formally-flitting Jean Cocteau, on leave from the War in Paris; an otherwise unlikely friendship (Cocteau: a talker and a connector and an admirer; Picasso: a stalwart maker) found purchase. It changed the course of Picasso’s career.
Cocteau came from a wealthy background and had a taste for high culture and society to match. He admired Picasso and the avant-garde — but moreover, he understood Picasso’s grasp on the modern to be the jolt of electricity that more classical forms needed to re-uptake. This is evidenced by the collaborative “theater story” referenced in Picasso’s note, which as alluded, was not a matter of the theater at all. Rather, this was a plan for an elaborately modern ballet — a tide-turning mid-War performance produced by Sergei Diaghilev and performed by his famous Ballet Russes, featuring a read-out script by Jean Cocteau, choreography by Léonide Massine, composition by Erik Satie, and, of course, costume and set design by Pablo Picasso. Fitting to this roll-call of 20th Century art figureheads, the ballet was called Parade.
Picasso’s costumes were Cubist — he figured bulky, geometric characters. The mural-sized oil on canvas he painted for the stage curtain— his largest work — called back to his earlier forays in naturalism and Symbolism. His place in the production signified a culmination of his style to-date, and the update that Parade gave the classical form of the ballet — theater-dance-modern art fusion — gestured to what would come for Picasso. Cocteau, rooted in the mythology, the monumentality, the erudite ethos of Greco-Roman classicism, had reached out his hand. Picasso, eyes wide open as ever, had taken it.