Picasso made Dance of the Banderillas on 14 February 1954 in Vallauris. Having made a drawing on transfer paper with a lithographic crayon, he then had it transferred onto lithographic stone by the Paris printer Fernand Mourlot. The lithograph was produced in an edition of five artist’s proofs and fifty signed and numbered prints on white Arches wove paper, of which this is number forty-eight, and published by the Galerie Louise Leiris, Paris.
Dance of the Banderillas depicts a play-bullfight between a beautiful woman and a classical-looking man. The bullfight was a subject Picasso returned to frequently, particularly from the mid-1950s (see also Tate T06803). It was also a favourite spectator sport for the artist from an early age, when he enjoyed regular visits to the Malaga bullring with his family. Picasso’s biographer Roland Penrose has written that, apart from his enjoyment of the action, ‘the main involvement for Picasso was not so much with the parade and the skill of the participants but with the ancient ceremony of the precarious triumph of man over beast ... The man, his obedient ally the horse, and the bull were all victims of an inextricable cycle of life and death.’ (Roland Penrose, ‘Beauty and the Monster’, in Penrose and Golding 1973, p.170.)
In this work, however, the bullfight has become role play. The banderillero, the bullfighter whose hazardous task is to drive short decorated darts into the neck or shoulders of the bull in order to slow it down, is turned into a young woman who is gracefully poised to strike her prey, an older man carrying a bull’s head mask who kneels in front of her, as if in submission. The fight between man and bull is transformed into an artificial erotic game and an ironic comment on the battle of the sexes at a time when Picasso was said to be particularly aware of his own inevitable ageing.
The ethnographer and writer Michel Leiris has noted that in Picasso’s work people often ‘interpose a mask between themselves and those who are looking at them (occasionally, following the Spanish custom, a mask of a stuffed or artificial bull’s head), and sometimes they unmask themselves: in these cases the emphasis is on the pretence which transforms the man looked at into something he is not and allows him to escape the other person’s stares. They are examples of the games of truth versus falsehood that Picasso so often indulged in.’ (Michel Leiris, ‘The Artist and his Model’, in Penrose and Golding 1973, p.251.)
The scene is observed by a group composed of a baboon, an old peasant woman, a younger woman with a tambourine, wearing a bullfighter’s costume, and a young girl carrying water, who is looking away. These heterogeneous characters, reminiscent of the acrobats of Picasso’s blue period, recur at different times throughout Picasso’s work, particularly the old woman, who is often portrayed as a procuress, and the baboon. The baboon may in fact be a cipher for Picasso himself, who had first portrayed himself as a monkey as early as 1903 (Self-portrait as a Monkey, ink on paper, Museu Picasso, Barcelona) and, only a month before making this work, in an ink drawing (In the Studio, Galerie Louise Leiris, Paris) where the artist at his easel in front his model was metamorphosed into a monkey on a stool, holding a palette and brush.
Fernand Mourlot, Picasso lithographe, Paris 1970, reproduced p.207
Roland Penrose and John Golding (eds.), Picasso 1881/1973, London 1973, reproduced p.156
Giorgia Bottinelli, ‘Pablo Picasso’, in Jennifer Mundy (ed.), Cubism and its Legacy: The Gift of Gustav and Elly Kahnweiler, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2004, pp.88-103, reproduced p.102