In 1957, the UNESCO “Committee on Architecture and Works of Art”, in collaboration with the Committee of art advisors, chose eleven artists to undertake the task of decorating the permanent headquarters in Paris, inaugurated in 1958. In this context, UNESCO commissioned a painted mural from Pablo Picasso. The artist began his studies for the decoration of the new Parisian building in December 1957 and filled two notebooks with sketches of bathing figures and nudes, in the style of his series of Bathers from 1956. On January 29, 1958, the artist completed the final scale model for this immense work. Two months later, the mural was presented to Luther Evans (1902-1981), UNESCO’s Director General from 1953 to 1958, in the presence of the President of the UNESCO Executive Board, as well as Georges Salles (1889-1966), the second President of the ICOM from 1953 to1959 and Vice President of the Committee of art advisors.
The mural is made up of forty wooden panels painted in acrylic, covering a surface of almost one hundred square meters. It represents a beach scene, with standing and reclining figures, animated by a figure falling, arms and legs flailing, towards the imposing blue surface of the ocean. Initially titled «The Forces of Life and the Spirit Triumphing over Evil », the composition was renamed in 1958 by George Salles, who preferred the current title, “The Fall of Icarus”.
Picasso’s mural portrays abstract forms with distorted figures and bodies. It was painted in segments, dividing the sizeable work into groups of four panels. The blue of the Mediterranean and all of the figures shown were painted in the style of the Bathers. With an air of spontaneity and casual improvisation, Picasso dominates his work; the composition is rigorous, balanced upon the trapeze-like shape of the hall where it is displayed. No definitive conclusions as to the artist’s symbolic intentions have been made, though many interpretations have circulated. It is often said that the theme of the painting is indeed, as Georges Salles stated, “The Fall of Icarus”, and thus that of a struggle between good and evil. Picasso himself suggested only “des gens qui se baignent, tout simplement” (a simple scene of bathers). In fact, all of these explanations are viable. Picasso preferred, in all cases, that his figures visually express his emotions, bringing forth a certain pathetic quality, emphasized by the winged, charred, falling figure.
Pablo Picasso, son of D. José Ruiz and Maria Picasso López was born October 25, 1881 in Málaga (Spain). At age 16, Picasso passed the entrance examination of the San Fernando Royal Academy in Madrid, abandoning his studies shortly after (1898) to settle in Barcelona. From 1900 onward, Picasso frequently visited Paris to exhibit his works and in 1902 moved there permanently. Stimulated by the 1906-1907 Post-Impressionist and Fauvist retrospective exhibitions, as well as by African and Iberian art, Picasso gradually abandoned the melancholic academism of his Blue (1900-1904) and Pink Periods (1905-1906) for a more “robust” avant-garde style : Cubism. This style, which he invented and experimented with in various forms, sprang from Paul Cezanne’s (1839-1906) concepts concerning the treatment of visible reality using the cube, the cone, and the sphere. After the First World War, Picasso worked almost simultaneously in two separate styles: Synthetic Cubism and a neoclassical style with heavy, firmly modeled figures. A few years later, these two began to merge, giving birth to an art that, until the end of Picasso’s life, was characterized by transformations or anatomical fragmentations that bordered on abstraction. Picasso’s artistic career can be distinguished by his prolific practice of numerous techniques: painting, drawing, engraving, sculpture, ceramics, tapestry... Continually experimenting with the form and exploring the capacities of materials, his attention was drawn to objects and the human figure alike. This craving for diversity and his temperament lead him to a series of enriching collaborations with such artists as Georges Braque (1882-1963) and Julio González (1872-1942), and to have numerous affairs. Pablo Picasso passed away on April 8 1973 at the age of 91, in his villa of Notre-Dame-de-Vie in Mougins, near Cannes (France).