Conversations in Management: Sylvette

I know there are images of me all over the world. And that is what is fun.

Lydia Sylvette Corbett

CorbettShe was 19 when Picasso spotted her smoking and sipping coffee at a local café. Three days later he presented her with a sketch of herself that he’d drawn from memory featuring her high ponytail. He asked her to model for him and with both hesitation and excitement, she agreed. Though she didn’t realize it at the time, Sylvette David (as she was then known) was about to become someone else.

Sylvette was no stranger to the art community. Her mother was an oil painter and her father an art dealer. Her upbringing included living in a nudist colony off the coast of France and attendance at Summerhill, the avant-garde school where class attendance was optional. In the summer of 1954, she moved to Vallauris, on the French Riviera with her boyfriend. By chance, they rented a studio on the street where Picasso lived. Her father’s contribution during this period was the ponytail. He had seen the hair style on an actress in a production of Antigone and thought it might look good on Sylvette. It did, and it was the ponytail that first attracted Picasso.

While he liked the ponytail, Picasso claimed that his attraction was based on Sylvette’s, “secret de la jeunesse.” That is, her grace, naiveté, vitality and youthful optimism. His relationship with Sylvette was never sexual. Instead, their bond was like that of godfather and goddaughter. This celebration of innocent youth resulted in what art historians have called his Sylvette Cycle. It includes over forty paintings, drawings and sculptures completed over a 3 month period. The portraits were reproduced shortly after they were completed and became an international sensation. The response surprised even Picasso who noted, “So you see: art is stronger than life.”

With the popularity of the portraits came celebrity for Sylvette. Opportunities for interviews, modeling jobs and calls from Hollywood came flooding in. But it was all unwanted. When French filmmaker Jacques Tati came to offer her a role, she hid in a cupboard and told her mother to send him away. A young Brigitte further popularized the Sylvette look when she adopted the high ponytail as her own. But as unwelcome as the notoriety might have been, Lydia Sylvette David had become someone else. Now she was the girl with the ponytail. Now she was Picasso’s muse.

Nowadays we think of identity theft as someone stealing your account information and with it your money. But there’s another kind of identity theft that’s happened to all of us at one time or another. It’s when your identity is co-opted by someone else through association. It happens in families, but it’s even more prevalent at work. You can be associated with a co-worker or with your boss in a way that links your identities. If you’re lucky it will be the halo effect and you’ll bask in their glory. Unlucky, and it’s guilt by association with often unhappy results. It can be hard to deal with, but Sylvette had the best approach—she went her own way. She never capitalized on the Picasso connection or piggybacked on his fame. She became an artist in own right. By quietly asserting her own identity, she was ultimately able to claim her association with Picasso as a part of her own personality. It became fun. It’s a good approach for all of us. Quietly assert your own personality and never capitalize on the association for your own gain. And if you happen to be one of those overpowering personalities, don’t surrender to vanity. Do what you can to let your followers shine their own light. In the end, there’s no substitute for the genuine you!       —Ebert

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