In the mid-1950s, Picasso was photographed by André Villers in his villa “La Californie”, which he had just purchased. Of all the famous photos from his stay in Cannes that are on view in the Musée Picasso, one stands out. It shows the painter wearing his famous white cotton shorts, cigarette in hand, observing Musicien assis (1956), a painting on cut-out cardboard, set on a rocking chair made of cane and curved wood designed by Thonet. The painter is standing, and the musician is seated, doubly. One floor below, it’s no longer a flute player on a rocking chair, but a female dancer, recognizable by her black slippers and striped leg warmers, which match her leotard. Dancer in Rocking Chair (2022) is a painting by Farah Atassi, whose work is on view in a solo exhibition at the Musée Picasso in autumn 2022.
Yes, we recognize some of the great Spanish artist’s themes in Atassi’s paintings—bathing women on the beach, the arabesques of the studio windows in “La Californie,” or the musical still lifes. But it’s not so much Picasso’s legacy that gives Atassi her foundation in the contemporary artistic landscape, but rather an unusual way of transforming these appropriations to produce a unique kind of painting. The dancer is seated on her rocking chair, staring directly at the viewer. Not far from her, a vase covered in a grid pattern holds a lush plant, while some citrus fruits, a blank canvas, and a frame complete the scene. Are the painter’s tools waiting to be put in motion, to be covered in turn with a grid or little waves, like the orange, green, and white waves decorating the open curtain constructing the space of this studio that has turned into the stage for a performance? The painter’s palette hanging on the wall like a painting in Dancer at the Studio II is also resting. In the center of a tiled surface, the female dancer is seated, surrounded by vases, flowers, and some oranges. As in the first version, which is also on view here, the same interplay of lines takes place in a skillful perspectivist design, as if the figure, the patterns on her clothing, and the ribbons of her slippers are attempting to blend in with the objects in the scene and background of the painting. They all want to play the same role now, the role of form in performance. The same is true for Young Woman in Red Top (2022): behind the wall hanging stretching from one end of the painting to the other, the blue candlestick, frames, and lemons surrounding her are on display just as much as the figure’s half-nude body. One form among many, the figure seems to be merely an element of an authentic still life. And when in Woman with Green Headscarf (2022), within a field where the components of the image avoid any hierarchical order, there appears a sketch of Femme nue se tordant les cheveux (1952) by Picasso, the artwork is hidden by part of a curtain. It’s as if the art object, because of its status, must not focus attention or compete too much with the curves of the half-nude model and the bowl of fruit in the foreground.
The theme of bathers inspired many artists, including Picasso, of course.
It's also a way of maintaining an ambiguity: which of the two nudes is the main object of desire? Paradoxically, what looks at first glance to be the most Picassoesque part of the exhibition, the pair of Resting Bathers (2022) reflects a step back from sources, references, and quotations. The theme of bathers inspired many artists, including Picasso, of course. Although the title seems to indicate an intention to engage with Picasso's work, the true focus of attention in Atassi’s pair of paintings seems not to be the Spanish artist, but what is happening behind these women reclining on the beach. The background of both paintings is constructed of three horizontal blocks of color of blue, mauve, and beige, which refer to the colors of the sky, sea, and sand. Clouds with very graphically scalloped edges stand out on these three bands of color (which may make viewers think, for instance, of some of Sean Scully’s abstract landscapes), instead of appearing only on the sky as the rules of representation would dictate. Rather than a figurative dimension, these clouds express a specifically decorative dimension. And even if these ornamental clouds don’t quite dare cover Picasso’s bathers, they almost push them into the background—which is why they are resting and not playing ball. Instead of simply referring to the theme of bathers, which was so masterfully treated by Picasso, Atassi uses it as a springboard to create the tension that is at the heart of her poetic approach: constructing the space of representation and decorative logic. Atassi’s art, as on a rocking chair, seems to balance between these two.