Julio González, Pablo Picasso and the dematerialization of sculpture

From September 23, 2022, to January 8, 2023, the exhibition Julio González, Pablo Picasso and the dematerialization of sculpture on the collaboration between the two artists that led to the creation of a dematerialized sculpture project, “a profound statue of nothing, like poetry, like glory”, will be on view at Fundación MAPFRE’s Sala Recoletos in Madrid.


In the period between 1928 and 1932, Julio González and Pablo Picasso collaborated artistically to create the funerary monument to Guillaume Apollinaire that the committee comprising his widow, Jaqueline Apollinaire, and the poets André Billy and André Salmon, among others, commissioned from the artist from Malaga. This joint work, which Picasso did not tackle until almost ten years after the death of his friend, who died in 1918, has traditionally been considered the moment that heralded the birth of a new type of sculpture: iron sculpture. This new way of working metal was to play an important role in the artistic production of the central decades of the 20th century and was considered the sculptural equivalent of abstract expressionism and informalism; in other words, it was the moment when abstract sculpture was first conceived. The second premise from which this subject is usually approached is the decision to confine the investigation to the small group of collaborative works produced by the two artists (eleven sculptures, seven of them small pieces) made over the course of some fifteen or twenty working sessions spanning a four-year period. If the exhibition Julio González, Pablo Picasso and the dematerialization of sculpture presented by Fundación MAPFRE shows anything, it is that the issue is much more complex. It facilitates a better understanding of that relationship and tackles fundamental problems related to the consolidation and comprehension of contemporary sculpture.

As Tomás Llorens, curator of the exhibition, remarked, “When we study them closely, it becomes evident that the works resulting from the collaboration between Picasso and González responded to the influences of the time in which they were created, rather than to a desire for historical pre-emption. And those incitements, the artistic and cultural climate of their time, were profoundly different from those that were to mark the post-war period.” If, on the one hand, these pieces were the result of the artistic climate prevailing in Paris at the end of the century and of post-Picasso cubism, which responded to the desire for transparency and dematerialization practiced by Juan Gris, Henry Laurens, Jacques Lipchtiz and Alexander Archipenko, on the other hand, it should not be forgotten that a profound change had already taken place in the perception of the decorative arts in modernist Barcelona at the end of the century, which were equated with the fine arts, leading to a renaissance of the former and, as a consequence, of the forging of iron.

The artistic paths of Picasso and González were quite different, although culturally close. Friends since they were very young, they both lived in the modernist Barcelona of the early 20th century, worked in Paris during the first three decades and maintained a bond that would only be broken by González’s death in 1942. Their artistic collaboration is explored in this exhibition, taking into account their common background and concerns, as well as the impact it had on their respective individual works. In the case of González, this joint work gave rise to a series of dematerialized sculptures, to a creative line that “allowed him to leverage fantasy and imagination as the keys to his personal poetics” —in the words of Tomàs Llorens—; Picasso, on the other hand, learned the possibilities of forging and welding iron, and created some of the most important sculptures of the last century, such as Woman in the Garden.

The exhibition discourse, which allows us to trace the joint work of these two great 20th century artists and their impact on modern sculpture, is divided into eight sections and begins chronologically at the end, with a chapter that is also a tribute.

Pablo Picasso
Cabeza de toro, 1942
Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan
Donation by Emilio and Maria Jesi, 1984
© Sucesión Pablo Picasso. VEGAP, Madrid, 2022
Photograph © Pinacoteca di Brera, Milano

I. Picasso 1942: tribute to Julio González

Julio González died suddenly at his home in Arcueil on March 27, 1942. Barely a week after Gonzalez’s death, Picasso produced a series of still lifes that, in the artist’s own words, represented “the death of Gonzalez”; this is the case of the Bull’s Head with which the exhibition opens. It is a vanitas and a posthumous tribute to his friend and his work. One only has to contemplate the structural purity of the painted skull, which references Gonzalez’s sculptures.

Moreover, that skull —with its obvious connotations in Spanish culture— leads us to another somewhat later homage: the montage of handlebars and bicycle saddle, also entitled Bull’s head. Both works evoke not only the friendship, but also the respect and admiration that existed between the two artists.

II. Picasso, Gonzalez and late Catalan modernism (Barcelona, c. 1896-1906)

At the end of the 19th century, several debates took place in modernist Barcelona that strongly impacted the work of artists such as Isidre Nonell, Joaquim Mir, Pablo Gargallo, Ricard Canals and Carles Mani —Gaudí’s collaborator in those years—, as well as that of the young Pablo Picasso and Julio González, among others. Two premises changed the course of art and culture at that time. On the one hand, the line separating the fine and decorative arts began to come under scrutiny, with the consequent renaissance of the latter. On the other, was the defense of an art that responded to the social needs of its time, which translated into an evident concern of artists and intellectuals for the social problems of modernity. Many of them, who were considered late modernists, became involved in the plight of the most disadvantaged, the poor and the marginalized. Aesthetically, they soon moved away from incipient symbolism and advocated a naturalism and a certain primitivism in which echoes of Puvis de Chavannes, Gauguin, Auguste Rodin, and particularly El Greco resounded, as can be seen in Nonell’s most popular gypsies, the works of Picasso’s “blue period”, Mani’s Los degenerados or in González’s Pequeña maternidad con capucha.

III. Precursors to the dematerialization of sculpture: crystalline cubism and purism (Paris, c. 1918-1925)

Traditionally, it has been considered that González developed the dematerialization of sculpture through Picasso’s cubism. However, it is known that the friends, already established in Paris, were not in touch with each other between 1908 and 1921. This fact suggests that, although González had seen the most dematerialized cubist sculptures of the Malaga-born artist —realized between 1912-1914— a posteriori, it was the influence of the late cubists, grouped under the so-called purist movement, which emerged in 1918 —among them, Amédée Ozenfant, Albert Gleizes, Henri Laurens and Juan Gris—, which led the Catalan artist to his research into metallic sculpture and the dematerialization of volumes.

IV. Dematerialization in the Cubist Tradition (Paris, c. 1924-1930)

From Gaudí to Le Corbusier, one of the major concerns of architecture during the first decades of the last century was the need for what Tomàs Llorens called “transparency”. This issue of transparency soon affected sculpture as well, and there were numerous artists who approached it earlier than Picasso and Gonzalez. Pablo Gargallo, a great friend of the Catalan artist, the first Giacometti or Jacques Lipchitz, shifted from round cubism to these types of dematerialized pieces. This tendency towards the dematerialization of volumes can also be observed in the cubist sculpture par excellence, Picasso’s Guitar, made in 1924 —around the same time that the monument to Apollinaire was commissioned.

Pablo Picasso
Figura: proyecto para un monumento a Guillaume Apollinaire, Paris, fall 1928
Musée National Picasso-Paris
Donated by Pablo Picasso, 1979
© Sucesión Pablo Picasso. VEGAP, Madrid, 2022
Photograph © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / Adrien Didierjean

V. Gonzalez’s collaboration with Picasso (Paris, 1928-1932)

The collaboration between González and Picasso began in September 1928 and gave rise to a set of metal sculptures in which the creative force of the Malaga-born artist took shape thanks to González’s mastery of the technique. The process of working together was delayed over time and finally did not materialize, at least not as planned, because of the continuing differences with the committee that had commissioned the piece and which expected a traditional monument. After much research and some pieces such as Cabeza Head or the model of what we know today as Figure: Project for a monument to Guillaume Apollinaire, basically a narrow, tall cage made of cut wires, as if they were miniature bars, in 1929, Picasso and Gonzalez set to work on Woman in the Garden, a kind of bird-woman with a single eye and a head of hair floating in the wind. Once completed, in the late 1930s, Picasso painted it white. This sculpture is the closest thing to what the artist from Malaga had conceived for the monument dedicated to Apollinaire; it was never placed in the spot for which it was intended, and he kept it at his Château de Boisgeloup together with another version he asked Gonzalez for, in this case, made of forged bronze.

VI. González: explorations in metal sculpture (Paris, 1930-1932)

After their work together, Gonzalez did not abandon his research into the dematerialization of sculpture, but neither did he turn only towards abstraction. On the contrary, during the 1930s he integrated a certain realism and primitivism into his research, with his peasants and his later evolution towards La Montserrat —as we can see, for example, in his iron masks—, together with what he learned from late cubism and with a certain tendency towards the oneiric and fantastic. The combination of these aspects resulted in a work that, as Llorens points out, “intensified the tendency towards dematerialization, as a necessary condition for freeing the creative imagination, and formulated it as ‘drawing in space'”. This is the concept that embodies dematerialization taken to the extreme, expressed through volumes described or suggested by the play of flat or linear forms rendered in metal. Some of the best examples of this dematerialization of sculptural volumes can be seen in Deslumbramiento (Personaje de pie), 1932, and the so-called Large Maternity, 1934.

VII. Picasso: the sculptor’s workshop (Boisgeloup, 1930-1932)

This section looks at Picasso’s independent work during the years of his collaboration with González. It was then that the Malaga-born artist set up his sculpture workshop in Boisgeloup and abandoned the problem of dematerialization in works in which volume, the rotundity of forms and matter took center stage. These were the years in which he made those sculptures of rounded bulk and a certain aspect that harks back to the Neolithic inspired by Marie-Thérèse Walter.

Julio González
Mujer peinándose I, 1931
Centre Pompidou. Musée National d’Art Moderne / Centre de Création Industrielle, Paris
Donated by Mme. Roberta González, 1953
Photograph © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Philippe Migeat

VIII. Picasso and González: witnesses of war (Paris, 1937-1944)

he Spanish Civil War and the Second World War inevitably marked a turning point in the work of Gonzalez and Picasso, whose art always had that committed quality. It was the period of Guernica and of the “weeping women” for the artist from Malaga, as well as of Man with a Lamb, the great sculpture made during the German occupation of Paris. These were the years of La Montserrat and the Cactus Men for Gonzalez. The dialogue between the artists’ personal poetry becomes, if possible, more evident. Both Man with a Lamb and La Montserrat have primitive and monumental as well as human and heroic features, and, above all, both works display a strongly Mediterranean character. The weeping women are, like La Montserrat, a reflection of the Pietà and the Dolorosas of Christian tradition, a product of their time; these works seem to seek to offer some kind of response to barbarism.

Small Montserrat Frightened is the last known finished sculpture by González, in some difficult months for the sculptor, who, due to the war, lacked materials for welding iron, so that, in parallel to his sculptural work, he created numerous drawings. In addition to the different versions of this piece, Gonzalez was working on a series of “cactus men”. Figures that transmit a spirit very close to that of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a motif that is also very evident in Picasso’s work during those years.

Pablo Picasso
Guitarra, París, 1924
Musée National Picasso-Paris
Donated by Pablo Picasso, 1979
© Sucesión Pablo Picasso. VEGAP, Madrid, 2022
Photograph © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) /
Adrien Didierjean
Pablo Picasso
Mujer en el jardín, Paris, spring 1930
Musée National Picasso-Paris
Donated by Pablo Picasso, 1979
© Sucesión Pablo Picasso. VEGAP, Madrid, 2022
Photograph © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / Adrien Didierjean / Mathieu Rabeau
Pablo Picasso
El hombre del cordero,
Paris, march 1943
Musée National Picasso-
Donated by Pablo Picasso, 1979
© Sucesión Pablo Picasso.
VEGAP, Madrid, 2022
Photograph © RMN-Grand Palais
(Musée national Picasso-
Paris) / Adrien Didierjean
Julio González
Hombre Cactus I, 1939
González Administration
Julio González
Campesina con cabra, 1906
Centre Pompidou. Musée National d’Art Moderne /
Centre de Création Industrielle, París
Donated by Mme. Roberta González, 1964
Photograph © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Georges Meguerditchian
Julio González
Cabeza de ojos grandes, 1930-1932
Lehmbruck Museum, Duisburgo
1194 / 1966
Photograph: Bernd Kirtz