Lydia Corbett (née Sylvette David, Paris 1934), produced some of her newest watercolours her home in the West Country of England, others in the Provençal village near Orange where she shares with her brother an old house inherited from her father, the distinguished Paris art dealer Emmanuel David. The distinctive medium she favours in her work well expresses the subtle balance she has achieved in her life between influences emanating from both England and her home country, France: it is a fusion between the crisp, economic drawn line of Gallic tradition and the harmonious, embracing and atmospheric flow of British watercolour.
Typically, the starting point of a composition of Corbett’s is a still life built generally around a central motif of fruit, vegetables and flowers in a vase often set against a landscape which expands to encompass glimpses of buildings and human figures, real or imagined, friends and family members or perhaps characters from mythology, religious sources or her personal enthusiasms in fiction. On closer inspection, it becomes apparent that behind every composition there lies a distinct logic and mood in the way in which one subject introduces another, rather as Picasso’s imagery can be seen to morph seamlessly from one subject to another in Clouzot’s ground-breaking film, Le Mystère Picasso. As motifs in the watercolours dissolve and displace each other, so the different elements in Corbett’s compositions often seem to occupy different time frames, while, as in the sacred art of Byzantium she so admires, sometimes gracefully defying the rules of gravity and perspective.
“When I paint,” Marc Chagall once said, “I pray.” If praying is understood to mean celebration, a summing up of what a person holds dearest, then this comment well describes the ideas and value which underpin the paintings of Lydia Corbett. It may be that the search for a spiritual equilibrium, which defines the mood of many of Corbett’s compositions, where reverie is combined with a delight in everyday things, is a response lasting across the decades to her momentous encounter with Picasso in her early years. In the combative and competitive environment which surrounded Picasso in this period, a natural inner calm and detachment enabled her eventually to part company with him while remaining still on best terms, a rare if not unique situation in the convoluted history of Picasso’s relationships.
Sixty years on, driven still by a remarkably youthful energy, Lydia / Sylvette’s inner calm has matured into a joyous serenity which finds its ideal expression in her still lifes, inviting the viewer to share her intimation of the benign interconnectedness of all things.
Lydia Corbett (née Sylvette David) was born in Paris in 1934. She grew up in an artistic environment (her English mother being a painter, her father an established dealer in contemporary art with a gallery on the Champs-Élysées), though she received no formal training.
Over the past twenty-five years Lydia Corbett has held twelve one person exhibitions with Francis Kyle Gallery. The present exhibition marks a span of sixty years since the months Lydia/Sylvette spent with Picasso in Vallauris and coincides with a major public exhibition in Germany concentrating entirely on Picasso’s works inspired by her.
In the 1950s she met Picasso at Vallauris in southern France. Following the artist’s separation from Françoise Gilot, his meeting with Lydia (then still Sylvette) introduced a new phase in his work and she became the model for some fifty paintings and drawings (the Sylvette Cycle) as well as many ceramics of this period. The “Heads of Sylvette”, a series of painted folded metal sculptures which Picasso developed at this time, mark the next major innovation in his sculptural work. Around a quarter of all the Sylvette paintings are now in public collections worldwide from the Art Institute of Chicago to the Kawamura Museum of Art in Sekura, Japan. In 2003, in Picasso et les Femmes at the Chemnitz Museum, Germany, many of these works were shown in a section of the exhibition devoted to the Sylvette cycle.
Lydia Corbett moved to England in 1968 and has been represented by Francis Kyle Gallery since 1989. On the occasion of the Tate Gallery’s 1993 exhibition of Picasso’s sculpture and paintings, a documentary film on Picasso and Lydia Corbett was shown on BBC2. In 1991 she exhibited in Japan and in 2004 in the United States. In 2014, her watercolours were shown at Theater Bremen, concurrently with the major exhibition, Sylvette, Sylvette, Sylvette, devoted to Picasso’s work inspired by her shown at the Kunsthalle Bremen. At this time also she was the subject of a one hour feature film produced by ARTE nationally broadcast in both Germany and France.
Sylvette, Sylvette, Sylvette: Picasso and the Model
22 February to 22 June 2014 at the Kunsthalle Bremen
In spring of 1955, Pablo Picasso became acquainted with the young Lydia Corbett / Sylvette David at Vallauris on the Cote d'Azur. For him, she embodied and ideal of beauty for that time and she inspired Picasso to paint a series of portraits. Over several months she modelled for him while he experimented with various different styles and techniques. With no apparent effort Picasso created portraits of her which ran the gamut from realism through to cubist abstraction. At the same time he creaetd with her his almost abstract folded metal sculptures.
Later in 1955, the Kunsthalle in Bremen, one of the country's most renowned public art galleries, was the first institution in Germany to acquire a painting from Picasso's Sylvette Cycle. To celebrate this event, sixty years on from the creation by Picasso of this extensive cycle of works at Vallauris in 1954, the Kunsthalle Bremen is presenting Sylvette Sylvette Sylvette: The Painter and his Model, an exhibition devoted exclusively to the Sylvette works.
Marking the threshold of Picasso's late period, the Sylvette Cycle comprises works in a characteristically broad range of media from paintings to drawings, ceramics and painted folded metal sculptures loaned from public and private collections across the world. The exhibition was the most comprehensive treatment so far given to a single source of inspiration for the artist. This major public show also documented Sylvetted David's sittings with Picasso.
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‘I see my work as bringing together experiences and feelings from both past and present: I would like to gather it under a heading, infinitas gracias, for if I express in this way my dreams and my ideals, it is all a celebration and a thanksgiving for debts I cannot repay – to the experiences, painful and joyous, of a wartime childhood in the Drôme Mountains, to my encounters in spirit across the years with great teachers such as St. Francis and St. Ignatius of Loyola, to all the artists I have known and revered – most specially to Pablo Picasso who made me his protégé and the subject of his art in those unforgettable months of 1954.’
LYDIA CORBETT / SYLVETTE DAVID
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