PICASSO’S GREATEST PRINT?

Yesterday Casey and I attended a half-day symposium at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art about its current exhibition, “Picasso’s Greatest Print: The Minotauromachy in All Its States”. The exhibit was small but choice: it included an impression of each of the seven states of this wonderful etching, all but the final state of which are exceedingly rare (there are but two of each in existence) plus one of the two hand-colored proofs of the final state. The collection comes from an anonymous private collection on long-term loan to the Paris Musée Picasso, supplementing the museum’s collection of the other known impression of six of the seven states and of its colored proof.

The exhibit was nice of course, and there was also a handful of supporting actors from The Vollard Suite, but the lectures were especially stimulating. Such tremendous erudition that seven scholars brought to bear on a single print for the better part of a day—we loved it!

Interestingly, there seemed to be a consensus that the addition of color not only did not improve upon the print but actually detracted from it.

I have so little to add to such thorough scholarship, but I did rise to the occasion in the Q & A by (lightheartedly) challenging the assumption indicated in the title, as well as the conventional wisdom, that this really is the Master’s finest print. I admitted from the outset that mine is a minor point in the scheme of things, not nearly as enlightening as the investigation into the enigmatic meanings of this masterpiece that the speakers had elaborated. Still, from the point of view of collectors such as you and me, it is not a trivial issue. We are especially mindful of how art historians and others have arranged the hierarchy of his oeuvre. Not only do we find it interesting but also important for us as collectors, because that hierarchy influences how the market values Picasso’s prints, and we are the ones in the trenches who end up paying the price.

The entire afternoon was devoted to exploring the multilayered meanings of La Minotauromachie and their interrelations with Picasso’s oeuvre in general. Rather than belabor the fine points the art historians made, I would refer you instead to the invaluable treatise, Myth and Metamorphosis: Picasso’s Classical Prints of the 1930s, by Lisa Florman, one of the speakers. It would provide you with an excellent understanding of much of what was said. In short, however, it became abundantly clear that, at least in the minds of these pundits, the reason they consider it his masterpiece is its incredible thematic complexity.

Another criterion that the pundits mentioned is the importance of this print in the context of the artist’s oeuvre and its central place within it. La Minotauromachie can be viewed as the culmination of The Vollard Suite, Picasso’s most famous print series, and of other related prints of the preceding two to three years, much as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was the culmination of some six hundred earlier works which led up to it.

Somehow I fail to buy the idea that the marketplace, as opposed to the scholars, values La M. because of its thematic complexity, much less its place in Picasso’s oeuvre. I don’t mean to be condescending here, but unlike the pundits, I’m sure that collectors don’t even begin to appreciate the many enigmatic meanings of the etching. Or at least I certainly didn’t before I first read Florman. So it’s not that.

This print, however, is complex not only thematically but also graphically. In the Q & A, the pundits readily agreed with me that its graphic complexity is another one of the contributing reasons for this print’s preeminence. La Minotauromachie is clearly the most intricate, and also for that matter one of the most sizable of Picasso’s prints, and it presumably required the most man-hours to make.

A pet peeve of mine is that Picasso’s collectors and scholars alike do tend to value graphically complex pieces over simple ones. This always reminds me pleasantly of my dear father, a traditional Old-World Jew and a prince of a man, who was in the crystal glassware business. For him, a piece of crystal was nothing if it lacked a lot of carving. And those pieces which had none at all were the worst offenders. He was so surprised, then, by the turn of events when smooth glassware came into vogue. But I have always found this distinction no more defensible for art than for tableware.

We must also allow that the sheer size of La Minotauromachie plays significantly into its valuation, however simplistically. Art, like real estate, is valued according to its square footage. Not that size isn’t important—a great work of art would generally become all the more imposing by dint of its monumentality. But, clearly, size alone (much like the presence or absence of the Master’s signature) does not great art make. And one hardly needs to list the many diminutive Picasso paintings, drawings, and prints that number among his all-time greatest.

The extent to which La Minotauromachie’s value is the result of the intricacy of its design is, in a sense, unfortunate. We certainly don’t need Picasso for detailed canvases or coppers—traditional art was already rife with them long before his birth. On the contrary, one of Picasso’s pivotal innovations was his economy of brushstroke and line, which did not at all diminish and, in a true measure of his genius, even enhanced the emotional evocativeness of his results. Today, in the wake of minimalism and other trends, it is no great shakes to encounter art with few shapes and forms. Picasso’s genius was not only that he introduced such reductionism, but also that he all the more was able to infuse these spare images with such emotional intensity.

Because economy of line and graphic complexity are natural opposites and cannot coexist, the valuation of economy of line in a work must neutralize its simultaneous valuation along the criterion of complexity. In other words, one can value a piece with only one of these criteria at a time.

There’s a certain amount of herd mentality in the print world. The hierarchy of Picasso’s print prices was set long ago—so long, it seems, that it has long since fossilized—and it would seemingly take a sea change to alter it. The recent price ascendancy of late Picasso is thankfully an example of just such a sea change, but it has been a long time in the making, it’s still in progress, and it has a long way to go, in my opinion, before it’s done.

There are other criteria that collectors and art lovers in general use that certainly don’t escape the scholars’ attention, but, I would argue, are not nearly as important to them, as they are to us, in their valuations. These chiefly are the beauty, graphic mastery, and poignancy of the work of art. I would further submit that if these were the primary criteria in judging Picasso’s greatest print, La M. would not come out on top, at least in the minds of many Picasso lovers and collectors. It might be included in one’s short list of the top 10, or not. But that list, in my opinion, ought to include works such as Le Repas Frugal (Bloch 1), the Blind Minotaur aquatint (Bloch 225), La Femme qui Pleure, I (Bloch 1333), Torse de Femme (L’Egyptienne; Bloch 746), and other favorites. I’d add certain small prints to my short list with which few would agree, by the way, such as Tête de Femme de Profil (Bloch 6), Tête de Femme (Bloch 256) or Contrée (Bloch 362), but that’s just me. Speaking of this Blind Minotaur, however (and there are four such prints in all, so let’s be clear we’re talking about the best of them, the last of the series), consider that the figures in this masterpiece are much better executed than in La M. The sightless Minotaur himself is much more expertly depicted and conveys his anguish so much more poignantly and beautifully than his sighted portrayal in La M. The other figures in the Blind Minotaur are also better. I’m not especially fond of the female torero in La M, with her crooked, thin nose and tight lips, not at all a flattering portrait of Marie-Thérèse, to whom some of the scholars attribute the subject. The young girl of La M. is nice, but the depiction of Marie-Thérèse in the Blind Minotaur is just as nice and is more stylistically interesting.

After the conference, LACMA’s chief curator of prints and drawings, the esteemed Kevin Salatino, did allow that he and his colleagues had in fact struggled with the title of the exhibit, but “Picasso’s Second Greatest Print” would not have gone over very big. True, of course. And funny. But by now, those of you who have bothered to read my tripe to any extent would know that your prime directive is to seek beauty and value, and not to be deterred, and indeed to be encouraged, when your conclusions do not reflect the conventional wisdom.