Chapter 4: But Some are More Equal than Others

“I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”
– Pablo Picasso

Our journey through the world of Picasso prints will follow the development of his numerous styles. We will see where his prints parallel his better known works in other media, and where they diverge. Like the fossil record of the evolution of man, however, there are gaps in the print record of Picasso’s artistic evolution. To fill these gaps as well as for the full impact of his work in other media, we of course have to visit museums. But if you don’t happen to live in Paris or New York, the museum record in your locale would be rather sparse. Yet if you feel that you simply must be surrounded by Picassos, all sorts of Picassos, ones representing his many periods and incomparable styles, you’re in luck—you can assemble a collection of his original prints! Tthe walls of a print collector’s home can tell much of Picasso’s story. The extent to which it can be told of course depends on one’s budget and the availability of the prints. Fortunately, a pictorial history of Picasso as told through his printmaking is still largely achievable today.

The first step is to familiarize ourselves with the world of Picasso’s prints. As we follow the evolution of his styles, I will tabulate the comparative merits of what I consider to be his better prints (more or less a thousand out of approximately 2500 prints on paper). The data contained in these tables will enable you to rate his prints, as you decide which of the categories of this rating system are most important to you, and, of course, as you view the images of his prints concurrently. Though I will intersperse a number of illustrations and discussions of his prints along the way, unless you’re simply looking up a specific print that you’ve already seen, these tables are really intended to be read alongside a picture book. If you were to purchase but one catalogue raisonné for this purpose, it should be Pablo Picasso: Catalogs of the Printed Graphic Work, Volume One: 1904-1967 by George Bloch. If you develop a special interest in the prints of Picasso’s last few years, you could also pick up the other two Bloch volumes.

With few exceptions, I’ll restrict myself just to the prints included in the Bloch catalogues. There are other reference books, such as the wonderful, eight-volume catalogue raisonné by Geiser and Baer which catalogues every Picasso print except his later lithographs, and which includes fascinating photos of all the earlier states of his prints. This set is, however, rather costly and is not entirely necessary for the beginning or part-time collector. Plus it’s in French. In addition, most prints in Baer that are not in Bloch are uncollectible. There may be only one impression of each of these prints, which almost invariably have wound up in the Musée Picasso, or there could be but a handful of them which you will rarely come across in the market. Unfortunately, many of Picasso’s best prints were never published. These unpublished prints often comprise earlier “states”, or works in progress. Picasso not infrequently worked and reworked his copper plates or stones as he developed his theme. As it is impossible to return to an earlier state of a print, we can bear witness to these earlier states only because impressions of them were pulled at the time. Although only the final state of each print was published in most cases, occasionally one or more of the earlier states were actually much more accomplished than the editioned, final state. Accordingly, it’s tempting to present an occasional rarity to you, but I’ll do so with restraint as there are plenty of available prints for us to consider already.

How can you benefit from this type of print analysis? Why bother rating the prints in the first place? Well, people hire art consultants or decorators as an admission that they have insufficient time, taste, contacts, or experience to satisfy their collecting or decorating needs on their own. As an art dealer, I feel that steering collectors towards beauty, significance, and good value is an integral part of my job. I have noticed that most clients at the time of purchase have hardly been exposed to the full range of Picasso’s print oeuvre, often to very little of it. Not infrequently, by the time they’ve gotten in touch with me, they have already made impulse purchases. I don’t exactly blame them. After all, so far the only sources for comparison shopping for prints are auction and gallery catalogues and databases, but that information is limited only to price. Much else should go into the decision of which print to buy, and for how much, than has yet been explored in writing.

To this end, I have devised a schema which would rate Picasso’s prints along multiple criteria. Depending on the importance you accord to one or more of these criteria, and if you agree with my rating scale, a particular print as a result of this exercise may become a more desirable acquisition for you, or a less desirable one.

Since the initial publication of this guide, I have received the occasional inquiry about why I left out a particular print.  Discerning the relative merits of Picasso’s prints was a product of an admittedly subjective analysis.  As I didn’t feel good about listing Picasso’s less accomplished prints yet according them no stars at all, since I wouldn’t want to  be seen as casting aspersions at my favorite artist, I instead elected just to skip them.  However, in some cases I wouldn’t quibble about assigning a star to some of the omitted prints.  If you feel that I slighted the object of your fancy, we could certainly talk about it….

One theoretical reservation that I should have entertained before publishing these ratings is that I would thereby run the risk of alienating just about every art dealer on the planet, or at least those who care much more about selling you their wares than educating you. If you are armed with the knowledge that the prints a given dealer is selling are an inferior selection of Picassos, you might see through the hype and go elsewhere. These apprehensions stopped me dead in my tracks—for about a heartbeat….

The following rating criteria can be classified under two headings, which, for want of better terms, I will call “general” and “particular”. The general characteristics of a print, such as beauty and rarity, regard its artistic merits and other collectible qualities. These qualities apply to the entire edition of a given print and are the only ones suitable for rating here.

The “particular” characteristics regard the appearance of a particular “impression”, or copy, of a given print, and its “condition”. A common term for an original print is the word “impression”. Other terms in common use for a given impression of a print are “proof” and “copy”. “Copy” of course has a different, less pleasant meaning, referring to fake or forgery. We will discuss fakes and forgeries of Picasso prints in a subsequent chapter, but, for the sake of clarity, I will not use the term copy with this meaning in mind.

The word impression is also used in a somewhat different, technical sense, referring to how well-inked the particular sheet of paper was during the printing process. During printing, ink is applied to the template of the print, be the template copper, zinc, linoleum, woodblock, celluloid, or stone. Then the template is applied to the paper in the printing press. As the inked template is impressed upon the paper with the force of the printing press, a good impression results when the plate is undamaged, its design is not worn from excessive printing of prior impressions, and an optimal amount of ink has been applied to it for the printing of that impression.

The condition of the print refers to whether the print appears as it did when it was new, or whether various factors such as sunlight, moisture, dirt, creases or tears, or trimming of the paper have degraded the appearance, and hence the value, of the print.

Obviously, these two “particular” characteristics will vary from impression to impression, and they can only be judged when examining a particular impression. As such, they are unsuitable for this rating system. They are nonetheless important and will be discussed in a subsequent chapter about print impression and condition.

The general selection criteria are as follows: beauty, significance, rarity, size, visibility at a distance, color, susceptibility to fading, value (or price relative to other Picasso prints), desirability to cost ratio, and signature. Let’s discuss each of these briefly.

1. Beauty: There are multiple sub-criteria in this category, including expressiveness, emotional power, humor, complexity or economy of line, and, in a broader sense, also originality and creativity. Originality/creativity could have in combination merited their own category, but I have chosen to include them under the category of beauty. Especially in modern art, the originality and creativity of an artwork are fundamental. In the era of photography, we no longer need to rely upon art to represent natural beauty–we have the camera for that. The camera has set the bar higher–the artist has to work harder, to imbue his creation with an alternate way of looking at the world. Who knows but that without its invention, the great modern artists might not have felt impelled to scale such heights. Our tastes are more sophisticated today, having long been exposed to modern art since its beginnings in Impressionism. By now, the creativity and originality of an artwork seem integral to our perception of it as beautiful.

You know the one about the blind date gone wrong? The next day, the guy catches up with the matchmaker and says, “This woman was really hard to look at! Her face was red and green, her hair was blue, her nose was enormous, and both eyes were on the same side of her head! What were you thinking?” The matchmaker goes, “What’s the matter–you don’t like Picasso?” Well, flesh and blood are one thing, but Picasso has caused us to broaden the definition of beauty to include the wide range of his perversions of conventional beauty. Yet the measure of the success of his enterprise is that his distortions of reality remain beautiful, in fact he’s totally re-imagined beauty, whereas the distortions at the hand of the lesser artists–think Dali for example–by contrast often end up looking simply grotesque or macabre. More than once has Beauty been sacrificed at the altar of Originality when the artist isn’t fully in control.

2. Significance: Does the artwork represent one of the artist’s signature styles? Is it one of the pinnacles of his achievement in that style or with respect to his work in general? And does the originality and creativity of the work merit a place in the advancement of modern art?

3. Rarity: Picasso’s typical edition size, 50 plus a few artist’s proofs, is inherently rare by any standards for such a sought-after artist, and automatically gets three stars. The Vollard Suite prints, with edition sizes of around 320, get a single star.

4. Size: Size is certainly not an absolute criterion for the desirability of a work of art, but it can play heavily into the determination of price and the suitability for display in a given space. There is a historical tendency among Picasso print collectors and sellers to limit the designation masterpiece to sizable works. This is unfortunate. Though size may be important in decorating, it has nothing to do with artistic merit. Some of Picasso’s best printed works are quite small.

5. Visibility at a distance (or boldness of design): How a print appears from across the room improves with the darkness and thickness of its line. As a rule, for example, the lines of drypoint or burin are bolder and thicker than an etching. The lines of a lithograph are generally much thicker, but not necessarily darker, than all of the above. The painterly diffusion of tone which characterizes aquatints makes them much more visible in general. And, even if there is no color background, the presence of plate tone, which confers a light gray background, helps the interest at a distance significantly.

This is an important criterion. Picasso frequently created his prints with very fine lines and subtle designs. You, too, might not think much about this while preoccupied with other factors such as the beauty of the piece or its price, until you get it home. Then, when trying it out in the spot for which you had intended it, you suddenly realize that it’s just a blur at a distance, all but invisible from across the room, or even half-way across the room. You see that, in order to do it justice, the piece must be viewed up close. From a decorating point of view, it doesn’t serve your purposes for it to occupy a spot which is most often seen at a distance, and in which it looks bad. So you end up hanging it in a hallway to force yourself and others to see it up close. That’s all right—hallways need art, too. But it doesn’t solve the problem of decorating the spot for which you had originally intended it. And you may not have wanted to spend quite so much on just your hallway art. By the way, I certainly don’t mean to imply that Picasso’s fine-lined prints are less accomplished works of art. In fact, some of his very best prints are fine-lined. One just needs to be aware that they may not be optimally displayed just anywhere on one’s walls.

6. Color: Picasso said, “Color weakens.” But you and I need color in our world and, frankly, so did he. The problem is that he really starved his print audience for color. Accordingly, colorful Picasso prints (and paintings and drawings) sell at a great premium. With Picasso prints, however, there’s color, and then there’s color. The majority of his colored prints are in the medium of linoleum cuts, in which most of the colors are various shades of brown. Not exactly what I would call colorful. But sometimes we Picasso lovers wish to depart from just black and white when decorating our walls. On such occasions, we have little choice. Thankfully, some of these linoleum cuts are rather striking, not only because of their phenomenal designs, but also because their creams, caramels, and chocolates can be rather nice.

7. Susceptibility to fading: Fading is another category that you won’t see discussed elsewhere. Some colors fade more readily than others. Black fades the least, whereas purple and violet fade the most quickly. Picasso’s deep blue is moderately light-sensitive, more or less on the same order as his reds and yellows. Fortunately, the light blue which he used for some of his linocuts, and the dark browns which he more commonly used, are rather insensitive to light and usually look fresh. There are steps that one should take to diminish future fading. These will be discussed in the subsequent chapter on how to properly preserve and frame Picasso prints. Here, five stars will connote the most susceptibility to fading.

8. Cost (relative to other Picasso prints): You will find it helpful to know what kind of prices to expect when hunting down your favorite prints. For precise data, one can subscribe to various price databases which list prices achieved at auction. These are generally accurate as to the prices realized, if not the condition reports that they summarize. An auction catalogue provides not only price estimates but also descriptions of the edition and condition of the particular print that is for sale. Depending on the particular auction house, the descriptions of condition may often be embellished, or even plainly wrong, for the auction house’s and consignor’s benefits. Other databases quote prices listed at art galleries. These are less accurate because they don’t indicate any lower net prices that may have been negotiated, and are less helpful because there is such a wide spread in dealers’ mark-ups.

9. Desirability-to-Cost Ratio: Most of the prints you lust after are probably the same ones everybody else likes and therefore are no bargains. In my opinion, however, there are plenty of undervalued Picasso prints, which, for one reason or another, have not yet caught the market’s fancy. One could argue that the most famous prints today will appreciate the most rapidly in the future. That may turn out to be true. But if money is a limiting factor, you may feel that a particular favorite print of yours is especially compelling if it is a good buy.

10. Signature: Some print editions were unsigned, some were signed in their entirety, and others were signed in part. We’ll discuss the pros and cons of buying signed prints in a subsequent chapter, but, for now, I imagine that you will find the designations of signed and unsigned prints useful, whatever your predisposition regarding signatures. Here the rating scheme is Y (yes, signifying that most of the impressions were signed, and that the signatures were by Picasso’s own hand), ES (Estate Stamped, with a stamp reproducing one of Picasso’s signatures), Y/N (Yes/No, meaning a fair proportion were hand-signed), P (Plate, referring to signed by Picasso in the plate or on the stone), and N (no, signifying that most of the impressions were not signed). In the case of most of the artist’s illustrated books, the individual prints are not hand-signed, though there is often a signature on the justification page of the book. In all such cases, as there is no hand-signature on the print itself, I give these prints an “N”.

An eleventh selection criterion with which I have struggled and finally rejected is perhaps worth mentioning, at least in passing. I was going to refer to it as “blushing flowers”, or non-photogenic prints. The prospective inclusion of this criterion was based on the following considerations. Sometimes I’ve walked into a gallery or auction display and have been thunderstruck by the beauty of a print I had never directly seen before. Some prints look uncommonly better “live” than in photos. (Less often I find the opposite to be true.) It is important for you to know about these “blushing flowers” to the extent that you do your shopping indirectly, i.e. online or from printed catalogues. Why should some prints be less photogenic than others? Scale is one answer. A large work of art may be much more powerful when viewed directly than when a small image of it is contemplated. The remaining reasons are more complex, and have to do with the textural qualities of the paper and the technical qualities of the ink. One would think, perhaps, that a two-dimensional photographic representation would be rather true to a two-dimensional, black-and-white original print, but, in fact, the disparity is huge. This disparity, although more pronounced in certain cases, is however true of all prints. For this reason, I have therefore ultimately rejected this criterion from the rating schema, as all the prints that I have tabulated would merit stars in this category. A corollary reason for its rejection is that I have gathered that this is a highly subjective criterion, and one with great individual variability. One man’s blushing flower is another man’s rose. Your final assessment of a given print is largely dependent on seeing it in the flesh. I’ve decided not to spoil your anticipation of this always exciting event by interjecting my own experiences.

In all but the Signature category, you will see that I have accorded one to five stars to those prints which I judge deserving. In so doing, I’ve omitted a number of less accomplished, or “no-star”, prints from the list altogether. You’re of course still welcome to admire the omitted prints, and also to buy them. I even inventory a few of them on occasion for buyers on a severely restricted budget. And I expect them to appreciate, as they have in the past, though perhaps not as fast as the more desirable prints. But I wouldn’t necessarily advise collecting them, given the luxury of a broader budget.

Another word about complexity. You’ll note that complexity, i.e. the amount of “work” that went into making the piece, is listed above as one of the factors in determining its beauty. But complexity, or its converse, simplicity, is a double-edged sword. Sometimes the beauty of a work of art is judged in part by the complexity of the rendering. This is certainly one of the principle standards by which works of art were measured historically. With modern art, however, this approach is not always valid, but rather depends on the situation, or on the artist’s intentions. At times, beauty may in part derive from the ingenious method the artist used to simplify the depiction. At other times, the beauty is diminished by the shorthand he seems to have hurriedly employed. We know that Picasso used an endless stream of inventiveness in depicting hands and feet, for example. If a given print offers a level of complexity involving some of the portrait’s features, say the face, to justify a finished rendering of the extremities, then the beauty of the piece suffers somewhat if Picasso missed the opportunity to beautifully depict them all. Although this notion has not been explicitly addressed elsewhere, Picasso cognoscenti seem to understand this dialectic between complexity and simplicity intuitively. Picasso’s single most complex print, La Minotauromachie, is also his most valuable. Yet some of his simplest prints are also highly prized, such as the series of eight lithographic portraits of Françoise Gilot (Bloch numbers 396-403). All but two of these are little more than line drawings. Of course, that line is beautifully drawn, and that is what distinguishes it.

But how should you use the ratings put forth in this book? Will you find a way to weigh these ratings according to your own priorities in order to calculate the “buyability”, or worthiness of purchase, of a print in question? It would surely be helpful if you could plug the rating of a given print and its price tag into a handy formula to determine its buyability. It however is impossible to be formulaic in this fashion, because the final decision depends so heavily on how much importance you accord to each of the criteria by which you judge the print. For example, if visibility at a distance is essential for a particular purchase, then a fine-lined print might kill the deal for you, even though the print was otherwise stunning and well-priced.

Once you’ve determined that a print is well-priced, perhaps you’ll find yourself asking the question, should I purchase it right now, or can I afford indecision in the expectation that it will comes around again? Much would of course depend on its price and your and budget. But, as indicated above, Picasso prints in their typical edition size of 50 plus 10-15 artist’s proofs, are inherently rare right out of the gate. When you stop to consider that many museums are actively collecting them and thereby effectively taking them out of circulation, their availability is sure to steadily and significantly diminish in the future. If you have done your homework and you have confirmed that the price is right relative to the above criteria of beauty, significance, condition, etc., bear in mind that you may not see the print you like again for a long while and, if and when you do, the price that it would then command may well be out of sight.

On the other hand, there’s no sense getting too trigger-happy. Though he hasn’t uttered them in many years, I can still hear my dear, departed father’s words of wisdom to this day. My father was a successful importer and wholesaler of decorative goods, and a shrewd negotiator. Whenever he felt the price wasn’t right, he would always say, “I can live without it.” Your favorite prints will probably materialize when you least expect them, even though you may have convinced yourself they never will again. And part of the fun of the chase is lying in wait till the right opportunity presents itself. Part of the fun of this book, then, hopefully, is using the information it presents to enable you to gear up for that opportunity, so you’ll be ready when it comes knocking.

Previous Chapter | Table of Contents | Next Chapter