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.