Pablo Picasso and Julio Gonzalez: The Power of Collaboration
On the 27th of March 1942, Spanish sculptor and painter Julio Gonzalez died in Arcueil, France. He is mostly known for his abstract iron sculptures with strong cubist influences. Although involved in various artistic enterprises since early youth, first as a metalsmith and jeweller at his father’s workshop, then as a painter in Paris, he did not reach artistic maturity until the age of 52 when a chance collaboration with Pablo Picasso revealed his distinguished talent.
In 1928, Picasso was looking for an experienced welder to translate his lattice-like drawings into small three-dimensional sculptures constructed from iron wires. He had met Gonzalez some years back in Barcelona, and making plans for his new project, he thought instantly of him. Having gained experience in the decorative metal trade under his father, Gonzales accepted the offer, but he saw himself more as Picasso’s apprentice rather than an equal artist. However, sculpture for Picasso, excluding his Cubist assemblages done before World War I, was a new territory as well. And so, the two, not really knowing where the project would take them, complemented each other in a very good way.
Picasso’s inspiration for the project came initially from Jacques Lipchitz’s open-form sculptures, which he saw in 1927. However, he seriously considered experimenting with this new medium when in 1928 he was commissioned to design a monument dedicated to his poet friend Apollinaire, who had died at the end of World War I. He decided to design an iron wire monument to commemorate the famous lyricist. Numerous proposals followed, many of which were rejected by the exhibition committee. But the further he progressed into the project, the more Picasso understood his new medium, and consequently, Gonzalez grew in confidence about his artistic potential too. “In working together, visiting each other’s studios, and through long conversations, the two men conducted a laboratory where ideas could be exchanged, worked out, or rejected, with each free to pursue his independent path. In writing of Gonzalez, the critic Hilton Kramer has recalled Picasso’s earlier collaboration with Braque, suggesting the “supreme irony,” “that the man who has been so celebrated for his individualism, for the heroism and singularity of his genius, may after all have reached the two greatest moments in his career when he was able to submit his talents to the discipline and sensibility of colleagues who were less reckless and more detached in their approach to art.”” (Josephine Withers, The Artistic Collaboration of Pablo Picasso and Julio Gonzalez, Art Journal, Vol. 35, No. 2, Winter, 1975-1976).
Between 1928 and 1929, Picasso and Gonzalez worked together on a series of small scale three-dimensional constructions. Picasso made detailed sketches, whilst Gonzalez carefully measured lengths of iron wire and, using solder for joints, built the models according to plan. One of the first fully completed constructions was the Painted Iron Head, produced probably in the early spring of 1928. In 1929, the two artists separated only to be reunited a year later. “In this second phase the sculptures were larger and less involved with the careful translation of a two-dimensional blueprint into a freestanding model. The technique was one of assemblage – the concatenation of various parts, all of them scrap iron, some of them found-objects: colanders, shoemaker’s lasts, industrial springs. Gonzalez’s skill in direct-metal processes permitted Picasso’s collage sensibility to erupt within the three-dimensional world of sculpture. For Gonzalez the power of this eruption was, literally, earthshaking – the beginning of what he called “this new art: To draw in space.”” (Rosalind E. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-garde and Other Modernist Myths).
One of the most ambitious and complex sculptures, which took months to complete, was the Woman in the Garden, originally intended as the monument honouring Apollinaire. Gonzalez wrote about it: “This work is made with so much love and tenderness in the memory of his [Picasso’s] dear friend, at the moment he doesn’t want to be separated from it, or to think of its being at Père Lachaise in that collection of monuments where people seldom go.” (Withers). One can say that the Woman in the Garden was a breakthrough piece for both Picasso and Gonzalez. After its completion, Picasso carried on with his own experiments in iron sculpture, while Gonzalez became more self-assured as an artist to follow a successful solo career. In 1936, his works were displayed in the exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and in 1937, in the Spanish Pavilion at the World Fair in Paris.