Picasso Print Breaks the $5 Million Barrier

I guess it paid off to stick it in their evening sale.  Yes, folks, last night’s La femme qui pleure, I at Christie’s NY went for $5,122,500, thereby setting the world’s record for a print by any artist.  It also more than doubled the previous record for a Picasso print at auction, an unsigned impression of La Minotauromachie at just under $2M last year in London.  Wait just a minute—I have to stop and catch my breath….

THE WATER IS THE WINE

As we know, Picasso was the most prolific artist of all time, and also the artist with by far and away the largest number of styles. But an observation that has not been much addressed is that he also portrayed a truly vast number of different themes. More often than not, the themes he portrayed tended toward the mundane, and, in so doing it he turned the quotidian into the sublime. It’s amusing to reflect that the most high-brow artist of our times reveled in low-brow scenes. Sure, there was the occasional series of musketeers and nobility. But most subjects tended toward the everyday and everyman. Picasso is definitely by, of, and for the masses. A review of his oeuvre reminds us that life is comprised of the little things, and that appreciating the little things in life restores our sense of harmony and balance.

His panoply of images is breathtakingly large: Cavorting and copulating, pissing, picking one’s foot, and picking one’s nose, holding an insect, seated with one’s dog, killing a chicken, doves, fish, birds, and land animals and plants of all types, landscapes, seascapes, tables (see Le Guéridon for a related discussion at http://ledorfineart.com/1920_Le_Gueridon.html), chairs, fruit, flowers, flowers with anthropomorphized genitalia, smokers, the artist’s studio, portraits of friends, acquaintances, collectors, dealers. Bullfights, the circus, harlequin, blue-collar work: fishing, collecting water at the spring, sleeping, dreaming, kissing, crying, embracing, violence, war. And of course his standard fare, the famous series of nudes, nudes, and more nudes, and also the artist and his model, bathers, the minotaur, centaur, and faun. The list at first glance is seemingly endless.

Toward the end of his life, Picasso created a reprise of his career in several etchings, a curtain call in which many of his actors have come out to take a bow (Ecce Homo d’Apres Rembrandt, Bloch 1865, see illustration below).

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More than just turning water into wine, by portraying every-day life in so many beautiful and inventive ways, Picasso reminded us in so doing that the water is the wine.

Picasso’s Illustrated Books Exhibition

For any of you Picasso illustrated book fans, if you ever plan on visiting the Bay Area, the next several months might be a good time to do so. You could see the small but wonderful show of some of Picasso’s illustrated books currently on view at the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco, through September 3rd. It features some of his best, rarest, and priciest illustrated books. Short on quantity but couldn’t be longer on quality. Just fantastic!

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While you’re there, you wouldn’t want to miss the magnificent still life oil and a plaster sculpture in the permanent collection upstairs.

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And if you still have time to spare, you could always take in the Monet show….

Also, the Matthew Barney show at the SFMOMA is superb, if you go in for that sort of thing. Not nearly as big as his show at the Guggenheim a couple of years ago, but qualitatively just as nice, in my opinion. I love his work, but I know it’s not for everyone….

Ceramics Hound

I very much appreciate your website, and blogs. I am interested in how much of your personal interest falls to Picasso’s ceramics, Edition or original, as opposed to his other works. I collect Edition Ceramics, exclusively at this point. -William G.

Mouse Stew

I’ve got a bad habit of going way out on a limb in advising my current and prospective clients what art to buy and what to avoid. It’s a time-consuming process, yet I only occasionally succeed in my efforts to alter anyone’s tastes or collecting proclivities. And lately I’ve begun questioning whether or not I should even bother, given the low likelihood of success and the high likelihood of (unintentionally) offending. The following is a classic example of how such a line of reasoning crashed and burned. It regards a discussion I fell into about a couple of prints a collector had purchased years ago from Picasso’s illustrated book La Tauromaquia (1959, Bloch 950-976). I have a strong distaste for these prints and decided to ask a number of pointed questions to the collector, thinking naively that he couldn’t possibly answer them to his own satisfaction. Boy, was I surprised. Here’s his answer. Despite its length, I’ve chosen not to shorten it so as not to weaken its arguments. I still resist the notion that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, unless I’m the beholder, that is, but so it goes:

Dear Kobi, When we spoke several nights ago I was familiar with that part of your inventory that was pictured in your web site, and I simply wanted to know what pieces you might select if you were going to purchase just one original signed Picasso as your first signed Picasso purchase, because that is something I am interested in doing. I am not however quite ready to make a decision since I am still trying to decide on what I really like, and what I might want to own. When I take my time and have the opportunity to make my own decisions I generally like what I purchase more after I bring it home than prior to purchasing it. When I rush into something because someone is trying to sell me something or I am getting external pressure to purchase something I am frequently disappointed. On numerous occasions I have purchased something with a guarantee allowing me to return the item after getting it home if it did not exceed my expectations. In almost 100% of the instances when I have done this I have returned the item, because of something I did not like. You did not offend me by telling me what you said the other night, but you did come across as more as a salesman than an art dealer with your response. I am sure you have sound reasoning in your own mind for how you responded to my inquiry, but it was simply not what I was expecting or anticipating from you. I hope that this opinion does not offend you, but your line of questioning asking me what I might be looking for seemed to be very close to a textbook Dale Carnegie sales pitch which surprised me. If I knew what I was looking for I would simply buy it or realize it was more than I was able to or willing to spend. I am still formulating my tastes in certain art (including Picasso’s) and my tastes tend to expand and grow the more I learn. I was hoping to possibly learn more than I did from you. I did appreciate much of what you said and as I told you on the phone I do enjoy reading many of your write ups on your art pieces in your web site, because they give me a greater appreciation for the art itself (the more I understand and learn about a subject the more I tend to appreciate it). Hearing what you have to say and hearing your opinions about Picasso’s works are more valuable to me than your trying to figure out what I might like or not like. I do realize that my likes and tastes are expanding the more I learn about art. I would still like to know what you would buy for your first signed Picasso print if you did not already own one.

I fully agree with what you said that one of your central duties as an art dealer should be to advise clients about their prospective acquisitions regardless if they like hearing what you have to say or not. I did however get the feeling that if you really knew exactly what I was looking for you might have more of a bias to tell me what you thought I wanted to hear instead of what you really felt. I prefer to hear what you really feel regardless of if it agrees with my tastes and opinions or not. I realize that I am still formulating my opinions of what I like and what I don’t like regarding Picasso’s works, and I simply wanted to know what you thought was the best values for a signed Picasso from the pieces you have pictured in your web site. What I heard from you was that everything you had was a great value, which may be true, but I would imagine that some pieces are a better value than other pieces To give you some idea of my background concerning art I have traveled extensively in my lifetime and have been to many of the major art museums throughout the world on numerous occasions, but I did not really start to gain an appreciation for serious art until 1-2 years ago. Until recently (less than one year ago I had never seen a Picasso that I would even consider owning, and I have walked by Picasso museums in Paris and Malaga in recent years without having any interest to pay the nominal fee to enter. Several years ago we fell in love with several Chagall pieces and we now own seven. We also love Calder and we own two. We like a lot of what Dali did and hate much of what he did, but our biggest fear was the number of fraudulent pieces especially in the later half of the 20th century. We have met several close personal friends of Dali that knew very well him when he was alive, and we have had access and confidence to what we believe to be authentic works of Dali and we do now own two pieces from the Argillet collection which we purchased directly from Christine Argillet who now controls all of the art that Dali left to her father when Dali died. Christine is the curator of the Musee du Surrealisme in Melon, France which is the permanent home of many of the most important Dali works not found in the Dali Museum in Figueras Spain. She knew Dali very well, and almost grew up as a daughter to Dali, because of the relationship between her father and Salvadore Dali. Although they did not speak for many years prior to Dali’s death Pierre Argillet was one of Dali’s closest friends and he had collaborated on almost 200 original prints with Dali and ended up inheriting Dali’s castle and most of his private collection upon Dali’d death. Prior to his death Pierre Argillet already had the world’s largest collection of Dali’s etchings which are now owned by Christine and her brother.

I did not like any of Miro’s or Picasso’s works until recently and now I like many of both of theirs. Several pieces from Miro’s Ubu Roi series I am particularly fond of and the first Picasso that I really fell in love with was “The Raising of the Bulls” from Picasso’s La Tauromaquia suite [Bloch 950-976]. We currently have one signed Miro, and three unsigned Picasso’s all from the La Tauromaquia suite. We also own “La Girafe en feu” from Dali’s Tauromachie Surrealist Suite published by Pierre Argillet as a tribute to Picasso’s La Teuromaquia suite.

I understand that you do not care for La Tauromaquia and that is OK as I am certain that I do not care for a whole lot of what you like either. That is not to say that I don’t value or respect your opinion as I expect that you know far more about Picasso and about art in general than I do or more than I probably ever will know. Here are some of my reasons for liking and owning La Tauromaquia:

First several prints from the La Tauromaquia suite were the first Picasso works that I ever liked and I feel it is important to buy art that you like or art that you really love. I do love the La Tauromaquia suite. In addition to liking it so much, we do travel to Europe about twice a year and I have been to Spain more than a handful of times for up to two weeks at a time. I am not particularly fond of bullfights I n Spain myself, but I know how important they are to the culture of the Spanish people and how central they are located to many of the older towns and villages throughout Spain. Many years ago I had car trouble in a small village and met a young man who helped me out. He was nineteen years old and barely stood five feet tall but he happened to be a bull fighter appropriately named “The Little Giant”. He proudly showed the many scares all over his chest from getting gored, and he supported his entire family of 11 brothers and sisters and two parents who all lived in a one bedroom house where everyone except for his parents slept on the floor. Posters of “The Little Giant” proudly hung on the walls throughout the small casita they all lived in. I spent two nights living in this casita while Pepe’s cousin repaired my car and I ate mouse stew with the entire family one evening which was a special meal they would prepare when important guests stayed or visited with them. Most of the children in Spain dream of becoming a famous bull fighter like “The Little Giant” in order to become famous and also become wealthy enough to support their entire families. In the US kids similarly dream of becoming rock stars, professional sports figures or models to achieve fame and fortune, but in Picasso’s world bullfighting was number one. This had to be an important part of Picasso’s life experience when he was growing up as a young child. So much of his art whether it be his etchings, his lithographs, his ceramics, his linocuts etc. reflect his attention to this obvious significant part of his life experience reflecting the importance of bull fighting within the Spanish culture. This was Picasso’s heritage. This was one of the most important events that occured in the world that he grew up in.

In professional basketball we have the NBA and a commissioner to write and enforce the rules that everyone ends up playing by, in golf we have the PGA, in football we have the NFL, in baseball we have the National League and American League etc., and in Spain “La Termaquia” was the bible for everything to do with bullfighting starting with the proper the raising of the bulls, to the type of arena itself, to the parade of matadors, to the actual bullfight itself, to the killing and removal of the bull. This was recorded in literature and also in art and although Goya paid tribute to this important literary work with more detailed etchings of famous bullfighters and styles or techniques used in his day, it was Picasso who captured the essence of this great and most important literary writing by putting it into simple pictures for everyone to understand and appreciate. Just as in early Christian times cathedrals had stained glass windows portraying the essence of the most important stories and graphic scenes from Bible for all of the parishioners to follow, the Russian Orthodox Church had icons, which are important works of art today, and Picasso immortalized “La Tauromaquia” with his suite by the same name. Just as Picasso paid tribute to LaTauromaquia itself and also to Goya’s earlier works, Dali paid tribute to Picasso with his Tauromachie Surrealist Suite published by Pierre Argillet as La Tauromaquis was considered to be one of Picasso’s most important works according to both Dali and Argillet. As you must certainly realize Dali and Picasso were once very close friends and after Picasso paid for Dali to come to America at the start of WWII Dali made the mistake of publicly embarrassing Picasso by telling the press that Picasso would probably want to be paid back by Dali and when word of this got back to Picasso he never spoke to Dali again. Dali’s Tauromachie Surrealist Suite was a tribute to Picasso intended to be an apology for how Dali abused Picasso’s generosity when he paid his way to the United States when Dali couldn’t afford to do that for himself.

These are some of the reasons why I think the series is so important and so meaningful to me personally. I think the people that knew Picasso closely (such as Dali and Pierre Argillet) and the people that understand the culture that Picasso lived so much of his life in can recognize the importance of this series itself more than just those that examine it as simply art and overlook the importance or significance of subject matter itself. I have heard before that it takes a genius to make everyone understand a single thought or subject and when it comes to La Tauromaquia nobody made this most understandable than the “Genius of Picasso” itself. The simplicity, the completeness, and the importance to the Spanish culture attached to this series is what comes across as being so meaningful and consequently why La Tauromaquia is what first turned me on to Picasso.

When I ask myself your questions:
(1) Did the artist portray the subject well? I would have to say, yes — because no body ever did it more complete job of illustrating the subject matter itself including Goya.
(2) Could anyone have done it, or did it require particular skill, creativity, and originality. There is no doubt in my mind that some other people could have done the same thing, but not with the same impact and certainly not everyone or anyone. Goya did it and his rendition certainly had more detail and because of that one could easily make the case that Goya’s rendition took more skill but it did not portray the subject matter nearly as well and it was certainly far less meaningful than what Picasso achieved later on. Dali’s rendition was without a doubt more creative but it was clearly a copy a la Dali, and I did already admit that other people could have done the same thing and others certainly did, but the fact that Picasso did La Tauromaquia is what makes it so significant in my opinion. This series by Picasso is the greatest reflection, of the greatest writing, on the greatest example of Spanish Culture, by the greatest Spanish artist, and perhaps the greatest artist in the world of all time. That combination of elements is what makes this series by Picasso so significant and meaningful.
(3) Is it just a series of sketches, or finished, accomplished works of art? I’m not really too sure how to answer this question, and it is probably somewhere in-between but there are so many other great works of art that are even less finished or accomplished so my opinion in this case may not be that significant.
(4) How could he have improved upon them? From my point of view and understanding of the
meaning of La Tauromaquia, Picasso couldn’t have improved on the subject or improved on his rendition of the text itself — he did exactly what he intended to do and La Tauromaqauia is a most complete illustration of the subject matter.

I have heard on several occasions that there are only three works of art in the world today that the art world generally agrees won’t ever go up for sale, but if they did they would be the only three works of art to sell for $1 Billion or more. These three paintings are “The Night Watch”, the “Mona Lisa”, and “Guernica”. I have seen all three of these pieces reproduced by other artists and they are difficult to distinguish from the originals which I have also seen so I guess I would have to say that there are other people that could probably do any work of art, certainly there are many artists that make a living copying other works of art just are there are 100’s and probably 1000’s of Elvis impersonators some that sound better than Elvis ever did himself. The other night we both agreed that Picasso’s simple nude that I believe was entitled “La Derriere” [Bloch 125; close enough"”but it's title is actually Fragment de Corps de Femme] was a great piece and you called it the best in the entire series by Picasso, and you considered it a great piece of art.

I also think it is a great piece of art so we clearly agree on some art being great and appealing to both of our tastes. When I ask myself the same questions I would have to say that almost anyone could have done this — and even I could probably learn to copy it myself given enough time. When I ask myself was this just a sketch or a finished accomplished work of art, it would be difficult for me to argue it was really much more than a sketch, but personally the simplicity of the piece itself is what makes that piece so magnificent in my opinion. If my next door neighbor did it I might like it but I would clearly not be that impressed, but since Picasso did it the piece is a finished accomplished work of art in my opinion if that makes any sense to you. I’m not sure that I am correct with this assessment, but that is what I think.

I am sorry that I rambled on so much with my answer to your question, but I did not have time to make my answer more concise. Think about it, if I could have reduced all that I told you into eight simple lines like Picasso did with “La Derriere” I could have created a masterpiece. When Picasso reduced the literary works of La Tauromaquia into a series of simple etchings he captured the essential fundamentals of the rules and ceremonial rituals to be included in the sport of bullfighting throughout Spain for every citizen to completely understand. This completed set of work serves as icons for the national sport of bullfighting in Spain. Picasso created a finished and accomplished works of art for the masses of the people in Spain to follow. Next to Chagall’s Bible series I believe that La Tauromaquia is one of the finest series of etchings ever created. For what it is worth, that is my answer. -Jerry T

Artist’s Proofs

Question: Can you tell me something about the fact that [the print in which I'm interested] is one of the artist’s proofs? Does that mean that because it isn’t numbered it is of less value than the rest of the edition? -Judith C.

Response: Most of Picasso’s prints were released in editions of 50, with a small number (usually 5 to 20) artist’s proofs. An edition of 50 would be numbered 1/50 to 50/50 by a hand other than Picasso’s. Whereas the artist’s proofs bore no numbers, they were usually inscribed with the words “epreuve d’artiste”, also by another hand.

There are certainly no hard and fast rules about the relative value of artist’s proofs. Some dealers will accord a 10% premium to numbered prints because of their customers’ preferences. I’ve, however, met many dealers and collectors who don’t assign any differential valuation to numbered and unnumbered prints.

Some dealers will tell you that artist’s proofs are more valuable because those are the ones the artist kept for himself, and the artist could be expected to have kept the best for himself. Others will tell you that Picasso handled and scrutinized his proofs more than the numbered edition. Apart from the claim that the artist’s proofs are therefore more valuable, which they’re not, at least on theoretical grounds, these dealers’ contentions may be true, but they don’t add up to much. The exception to the rule is the singular case in each edition of the “bon à tirer” print, in which that “ready to print” designation is in fact inscribed by the artist’s own hand and lends significant added value to the print.

As a practical matter, however, artist’s proofs are usually more desirable than the typical numbered print because they’re in better condition. Having been kept by Picasso throughout his life and then often much longer by his estate, or having been kept by the printers or publishers, the artist’s proofs were much more likely to have escaped the ravages of the elements and of non-archival matting and glazing, and are thus likely to be in much better shape than the numbered proofs. Many have spent their lives in the dark, as underprivileged as a veal, and have only just seen the light of day. Therefore, at least prior to inspection, my preference always leans toward an artist’s proof.

A corollary question to that posed by the reader is the relative value of differently numbered proofs, i.e., is number 1 better than number 50? You might think that the impression of the print numbered 1 might be better than the last one numbered. It however isn’t, for a couple of reasons. First, the vast majority of Picasso’s intaglio prints were steel-faced (a process in which the relatively soft copper plate is hardened by plating it with steel). As such, one would expect no differences in the quality of the first and last impression in an edition of fifty or even, in the case of the Vollard Suite, an edition of, say, 325. Secondly, as my friend and fellow art dealer, Emanuel Silberstein, himself a former printer, has pointed out, since the prints are stacked as they exit the printing press, the last one printed is, if anything, more likely to be the first one numbered.

The Determinants of the Relative Value of Prints

Question: Maybe you can help me understand why one print could be $95k and another could be $2k—is it all rarity? —Luke P.

Response: Supply certainly influences demand, but it is not the only factor. A print’s price is also determined by the demand for that particular print, the richness of the impression (of the inked plate, block, or stone on the paper), the condition of the print, the size of the print, its colorfulness, and the presence of a signature. The demand for a given print is largely determined by the quality of the design, but is also subject to other prevailing preferences in the marketplace. For example, in Picasso prints, female portraiture generally commands a higher price than battle scenes. -Kobi

PRINTS vs. PAINTINGS

Just like every significant museum with an interest in modern European art, even a collector as richly endowed as Norton Simon hoarded Picasso prints (and Rembrandts and Goyas) like they were going out of style. He acquired 710 Picasso prints but only five Picasso paintings. (Print dealers such as ourselves can only admire that ratio!) Presumably, he didn’t do it because, unlike many print collectors, prints were the only Picassos he could afford, but rather because the print medium, especially in the hands of Picasso, the greatest print innovator of all time, gave rise to unique and breathtakingly beautiful artistic expressions. The interesting essay on Mr. Simon’s approach to print collecting by Gloria Williams in Picasso, Graphic Magician: Prints from the Norton Simon Museum amplifies this topic eloquently and informatively.

In my personal experience, I know print collectors who claim that, even if money were no object, they would still exclusively, or almost exclusively, collect prints. I find that hard to believe and was rather unsuccessful in prying convincing reasons out of them. I’m interested in your thoughts. -Kobi

Investment-Grade Picasso Prints

Question [paraphrased from a phone conversation]: Could you recommend those works in your catalogue which in particular would have the maximal future appreciation? -Daniella R.

Response: I readily agree with your comment on the phone that not all Picassos are “created equal”, shall we say. Though many Picasso prints are truly masterworks, some clearly are not. The point is that, just like the stock market, the Picasso market already takes such factors into consideration when arriving at a valuation of each of his works. Furthermore, all of his works seem to appreciate in parallel. Provided that the price is right to begin with, appreciation is to be expected across the board. The nice thing about this is that a collector should therefore feel free to invest in whatever she finds most aesthetically appealing within her price range. -Kobi

A Reader’s Thoughts on Picasso’s Prints

Some of my thoughts on Picasso and his early printmaking (1907-1966). It is obvious that he could draw exceptionally well, so all his distortions must be deliberate, willful, and with a specific purpose. As with all great artists he looked back to the origins of the European tradition of art, namely the Greeks. These were discovered during the 14th century Renaissance and lead to an explosion of art in the depiction of the human form as nature dictated, Giotto, DaVinci, Michelangelo, Rubens, and later the Northern Renaissance, Durer, Rembrandt, etc.). But Picasso wanted to go into another direction! As a draftsman he was influence by his father and the Spanish tradition. He was acquainted with El Greco, Velasquez, Goya, etc. On one hand he saw the distortions of El Greco (whether willful or due to astigmatism)—the elongated bodies of saints, the soulful eyes facing heaven, the purple and black coloration, the bony and elongated fingers, the cachectic bodies of the holy priests and the leggy horses. (Is it a coincidence that his Greek mythology and El Greco have a name in common? The latter studied in Rome and then left the classic tradition to paint in Spain.) Velasquez also distorted, primarily because he could not draw a proper human proportion—look at the left hand of the Infanta Margarita, or the proportions of the Rokeby Venus (body parts and mirror image). Manet’s (another influence on Picasso) odalisque has two extra vertebrae. Nevertheless these are powerful images. Others that influenced him to some degree were Murillo, Goya (in my mind the greatest of social-political Spanish painters), Zurbaran, Ribera, etc. Following the exploits of Napoleon, with the sack of Madrid and the pillage of the Prado there was a Spanish revival in France. The previously unknown Spanish painters were exposed to the world and widely admired and copied.

Furthermore the Greek tradition divided the deities and their philosophies as Dionysian (primitive, hedonistic, sexual, and emotional—in Picasso language, the upper body of the bull and the lower body of a man, and in many cases being led like Oedipus by a young child to the voluptuous female form) or Apollonian (intellect, music art, beauty, etc.—in Picasso the male upper body and the horse lower body, or the Greek statuesque body). But Picasso was also a jester (blue and pink periods as well as the carnivale series of harlequins). His prints depict the Apollonian image, but the god figure turns his eyes towards the female nude pubic area (see Modele et grande Tete sculptée, Bloch 170), that this dichotomy which is mainly academic may not hold. He exaggerates the female body to denote lust and desire. He applies the recently (1920’s?) fashionable Chinese screens and art, by placing a diaphanous curtain through which we can see the bull head as he uncovers the nude female form (see Minotaure Endormi Contemplé par une Femme, Bloch 193). And, finally, he makes the great breakthrough by deconstructing the female form to accentuate its most important features (the sexual components) and then develops a language to summarize and codify the human form. But he doe not stop there—he uses everyday objects to reconstruct the human form (see Modele et Sculpture surréaliste, Bloch 187). That is why this etching of the female looking at her image as common kitchen objects is such a powerful and important work. He gives us clues on how he does it by letting us in on a secret—his prints of his atelier, the importance of which should not be missed. Finally, he depicts the common European tradition as seen through strange and different eyes—the African masks of the young ladies of Avignon—the prostitutes in the French holy city of Avignon, the seat of the Popes during the great Schism. Is it a coincidence that he placed these figures at a holy site? After all, nothing that Picasso does is accidental.

The further evolution of his style results from dispensing with all recognizable human form (the Marie-Therese muse) and creating an abstract language of the human form and condition (Dora Maar, etc.). He develops a multiplanar frontal visage of the human form to denote simultaneous time-space relationships (the portraits of Dora Maar or especially Jacqueline or the two nude women series [Les Deux Femmes Nues, Bloch 390?] are paramount). His prints are so important, because he used them as a template to figure out where he was heading, and reused the images over and over again (for example, the female bullfighter whose horse was gored, a six-part series (1934, see Femme Torero, IV, Bloch 280) is reused as the major theme in Guernica (1937), until he moved on to yet a different phase of his ever evolving style.–Gershon S.