Pablo Picasso ‘draws’ a centaur in the air with light

1949, Printed Later
Silver Gelatin Photograph

Signed in ink on verso.

By the year 1949, Pablo Picasso was 67 years old and in the midst of reckoning with his age having gained notoriety as perhaps the 20th century’s foremost artistic genius. At the same time, Gjon Mili who was an Albanian-American photographer for LIFE was at the height of his career. He was a technical prodigy while at MIT pioneering lighting techniques and using photography to reveal sequences of movement usually too rapid or complex for the naked eye to detect. Mili traveled to the South of France in 1949 to show Picasso his original photographic work he had created; specifically images where Mili had attached lights to ice skaters’ feet and photographed them jumping in the dark using long shutter speeds creating a kind of “light writing.” This piqued Picasso’s interest, and always the artistic innovator, Picasso used the chance and same general technique to create momentary, yet simultaneously lasting drawings that were all due to the technical capabilities that Mili had perfected with his photographic work.

The image of Picasso forming a figure of a centaur is both an original work by the artist himself, and also a unique portrait of one of the world’s most influential artists in the midst of creative enthusiasm. Around this time Picasso’s interest in mythology and a “man as beast” theme reemerged although he would now use new mediums such as ceramics and light drawings to once again explore these subjects. Picasso’s centaur light drawing vanished as soon as it was created but it still exists today in Mili’s lively and mesmerizing image of the artist at work in his studio seemingly embodying the physical act of creativity pouring forth. Surprisingly for the notoriously brusque Spanish artist, there is even a glimpse of a smile through the dark that seems to show his enjoyment with the project. The image of the centaur light drawing was put on display in early 1950 in a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and remains perhaps the most dynamic portrait of Picasso’s genius. Mili would revisit Picasso again through the years, each time encountering yet another side of the man while also documenting various bodies of work created by the prolific artist.