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Picasso's Sylvette Searches For Love In The Village

Picasso's Sylvette Searches For Love In The Village

Bust of Sylvette, Pablo Picasso (Constructed by Carl Nesjar), 1968

Bust of Sylvette, Pablo Picasso (Constructed by Carl Nesjar), 1968


On a particularly cold and windy day where the Manhattan sky stood dark and silvery, I found myself staring at a rather horrific piece of art in Greenwich Village, between Wooster and Bleeker street. In the courtyard of I.M Pei’s Silver Towers stood a towering abstract concrete sculpture of a woman’s face. I wondered who could’ve possibly commissioned such a tragic bust, so I walked up to the small plaque only to find that the sculpture was the work of Pablo Picasso. It was the Bust of Sylvette, designed by Pablo Picasso and executed by Carl Nesjar in 1968. After reading that, it was only natural that I visually examined the work more carefully.

The sculpture has two facets, both of which portray Sylvette in a different light. Picasso depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent Sylvette in a greater context. From afar, the sculpture possesses a certain fluidity and dynamism in contrast to the angular and rigid Silver Towers that encompass it. Though it is large in stature, Picasso’s Bust of Sylvette appears dwarfed by the towers and adds to the melancholic and desolate mood of the complex. Sylvette’s facial detail is black, while her skin-tone remains an untouched concrete grey, similar to the shade of the towers. Up close however, the sculpture appears angular, with sharp lines creating tonal differences in the light. Moreover, the angulated structure of the sculpture creates an illusion of Sylvette turning her face inwards as if she is looking in dissatisfaction towards one of the towers, though rightly so since the towers are just as displeasing to the eye. The juxtaposition of angular lines and circular ones allow the viewer to see an abstract image of a woman while ironically, the concrete material used symbolically questions her reality. Up close, the sculpture is actually texturized with small pebbles; what appears to be black paint from afar are actually black pebbles in contrast to grey ones. On the other side, one finds a face that appears to squinting, possibly deep in thought or maybe even showing signs of anger. Her body language on the other hand appears to be slightly more welcoming despite her facial expression when compared to the previous facet. Yet, despite analysing the work I couldn’t seem to find its purpose, other than Sylvette ironically looking back at the towers in disgust.

According to the 1968 December edition of Arts Magazine, Picasso had produced a miniature sculpture of the Bust of Sylvette in 1954, fifteen years before the actual sculpture was erected. This eradicated my doubts that the final Bust of Sylvette was not just an artist attempting to replicate the work of Picasso. The project was in fact planned in great lengths between Nesjar and Picasso rather than Picasso briskly engaging in a business deal driven by wrongful monetary pursuits. Nonetheless, I was still not convinced and remained in question to why it had been placed there above anywhere else. Furthermore, I discovered that the Bust of Sylvette had made the front cover of the 1971 edition of the Art Journal, a widely acclaimed Art magazine. This further emphasized the public’s appreciation of the sculpture when it was initially produced. While reading about Picasso’s Bust of Sylvette, I also found that Carl Nesjar and Pablo Picasso produced another copy in Rotterdam, Holland, suggesting that it was project intended to be larger than a mere ornament for the Silver Towers.

I came back a week or so later after reading up on the towers to see if I was now able to appreciate the sculpture knowing that it was a Picasso, but instead grew less and less fond of it. I felt as if the residents of the Silver towers felt no sense of attachment towards the sculpture either, for I noticed children playing football on the grass that the sixty-seven ton sculpture stood on. To tell you the truth, I was unsure to whether one is even in the position to call the sculptures’ platform grass, because of how it appeared to be sheer umber coloured mud that was either a product of children playing there or the winter gone by; neither of which changes my opinion on how the residents of Greenwich Village view the sculpture. I was left in utter confusion to why Pablo Picasso agreed to endorse Carl Nesjar’s sculpture, and their incentives in placing the sculpture in its current location remained alien to me.

I.M Pei, the architect who designed the Silver Towers also designed the glass pyramid entrance to the Louvre museum in Paris in 1988. Pei is known to incorporate structure and the environment with geometry. He is also known for his use of marble, concrete, and glass in addition to soaring interior spaces. It is probable that Pei had intended the Silver Towers to be an architectural staple. In fact, the Silver Tower complex received a landmark status from New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2008. Even today, there is a huge contrast between the Silver Towers and the low-rise redbrick apartments of the Village. The towers both symbolically and literally stand taller than their contemporaries, though the intended modernity of Pei ironically appears old fashioned in comparison. This made me think that the complex as a whole might’ve been intended as a luxurious, residential area, with the Picasso as being a statement for prestige. While the Village seems to represent a preservation of counter-culture and the arts, since historically it has been the Bohemian capital, the cradle of the modern LGBT movement, and the East Coast birthplace of both the Beat and '60s counterculture movements, the Silver Tower complex instead represents a sense of elitism and wealth, driven by the capitalistic profit-motif. And despite being the product of Picasso and Pei, it is only understandable why Sylvette struggles to find a lover for she seems to be standing in the wrong place.

suley azhari

 I was left in utter confusion to why Pablo Picasso agreed to endorse Carl Nesjar’s sculpture, and their incentives in placing the sculpture in its current location remained alien to me.

Suley Azhari

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