‘When I paint,’ Marc Chagall once said, ‘I pray.’ If praying is understood as celebration, a summing up of what one holds dearest, then this comment describes well the ideas and values which underpin the paintings of Lydia Corbett, never more so than in this new sequence created over the past two years, World in a flower.
For Corbett celebration may on one level be personal, relating directly to happy circumstances in her life. On another level the focus comes from various epiphanies experienced along the way: in recent years, for example, from her fascination with the teachings and example of St. Francis, arising from a visit she made to Assisi.
It may be that the search for a spiritual equilibrium which defines the mood of many of Corbett’s compositions, combining reverie with a delight in everyday things, is a response, which has lasted across the decades, to the seminal encounter of the artist’s early years: the time in 1954 when, still under twenty, she spent some four months at Vallauris on the French Riviera in thrall to Pablo Picasso as his reigning model and muse. In the combative and competitive environment which surrounded Picasso at this period an 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.
Nowadays Lydia Corbett divides her time between her home in the West Country and 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. Most often she works in the idiom she has made her own: a fusion between the crisp, drawn line of Gallic tradition (in some ways reminiscent of Jean Cocteau’s approach), and the harmonious, embracing flow of British watercolour.
For Corbett, the starting point of almost every composition is a still life built generally around a central motif of fruit, vegetables, 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 drawn from mythology, religious sources or her personal taste in fiction. Each of these compositions seems at first glance to consist of seemingly disparate, unrelated elements. 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.
Lydia Corbett /Sylvette David was born Paris 1934. She grew up in an artistic environment (her English mother being a painter, her father an established dealer in contemporary art), though she received no formal training.
In the 1950s she met Pablo Picasso at Vallauris on the Riviera. 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 a cycle of some fifty paintings and drawings (the Sylvette cycle) as well as many ceramics of this period. The ‘heads of Sylvette’, a series of unfolded metal sculptures which Picasso developed at this time, marked the next major innovation in his sculptural work. 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. In 1968 Lydia Corbett moved to England 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. One-person exhibitions with Francis Kyle Gallery in 1989, 1991, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2002, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2014.
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 is the most comprehensive treatment so far given to a single source of inspiration for the artist. This major public show also documents 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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