The Master Comes to Town
Louis Laloy, a critic, musicologist, and drug-addict célèbre, once told Jean Cocteau: "Some things should be tried only once." Laloy was referring to opium, but when it comes to writing about a figure like Pablo Picasso, I feel I'm ready to heed his advice.
This is why: Picasso is, arguably, the most relevant artist of the Twentieth Century. Before Cubism (a decisive trend in modern art) he had already created the Blue Period, to which Rilke would write a beautiful sonnet, and the Rose Period (his Garcon à la pipe from this phase recently sold at auction for $104 million, the highest price ever paid for a painting).
Picasso created two of the most significant works of the century: Les Demoiselles d'Avignon in 1907 and 30 years later, Guernica, the paragon of war painting in this century of wars. It's easy to see why six of the ten most expensive paintings in history are Picasso's.
A nineteenth-century-born artist who helped forge the next century, Picasso witnessed the end of la Belle poque, two world wars, and the first human landing on the moon. Three generations of poets and writers were seduced by his art and character: Rilke, Cocteau, Hemingway, Max Jacob, F.T. Marinetti, Tristan Tzara, Guillaume Apollinaire, Gertrude Stein, André Breton, and Paul Eluard, among others. For 50 years the destiny of all twentieth-century painters was to either accept or fight Picasso's influence.
So much has been said and written about this Spanish-born French treasure that the legend literally overcomes the historic figure. He personified the modern protean myth of constantly changing one's skin.
In hundreds of books and monographs he's portrayed as child prodigy, sexual beast, dreadful father and husband, destructive friend, virtuoso draftsman, indefatigable worker, and media celebrity. For all this, Picasso remains a matchless genius.
In the past, we in Miami haven't had the good fortune of hosting a Picasso retrospective such as MoMA's superb 1989 show on the history of Cubism, or last year's "Matisse, Picasso: Rivalry of Masters." Now, however, the Bass Museum of Art brings us "Picasso Suite 347," a series of prints completed by the master between March and October 1968 in a frenzied burst of creative energy. Loaned to the Bass by the Bancaja Collection of Valencia, Spain, this collection, which is rarely seen in its entirety, is by no means a minor display.
Picasso's paintings during the late Sixties are, for some critics, poor derivations of his earlier years. But even those who find his late paintings "sloppier versions of earlier triumphs," as one observer put it, admit that this period's prints are simply amazing. "Suite 347" is unique in richness, detail, and mastery of the medium. American critic Donald Kuspit has praised it as "the most exhaustive examination of lust ... in the history of art."
Picasso loved the print medium, which he began using in the Thirties. Through the Fifties he experimented with lithography, a process of drawing on a stone plate using a greasy medium such as a wax crayon. By the Sixties he'd returned to the intaglio technique, with which he felt the greatest affinity; the main such techniques are engraving, drypoint, etching, and aquatint.
In etching, a metal plate is covered with a waxy coating on which the artist draws with a steel burin or needle, exposing the metal beneath. When the plate is immersed in acid the "drawing" comes forward. The wax is then removed, the plate inked, wiped clean, and printed. Etching gave Picasso the opportunity to draw quickly on the waxy surface, something he loved because he was able to achieve the fluidity of drawing with the aesthetic possibilities of printing.
Aquatint is similar to etching in that it also uses acid, but the effects are similar to a watercolor wash. Aldo Crommelynck, one of Picasso's printers for the "Suite 347" period, reveals that Picasso "brought a multitude of innovations to the ... technique. He was able to find simple manipulations which gave astonishing results.... His tireless inventiveness was fascinating."
The show at the Bass has been divided into themes -- "Mythology and the Circus," "Picasso, His Work and His Public," "Rafael and the Fornarina," "La Celestina" -- in order to convey a didactic sense of continuity within the artist's oeuvre and his examination of art history.
Picasso freely borrows from the most disparate sources (I'll spare you the psychological explorations to address the facts). First there is the circus, an important theme in Picasso's early art and life. His images also evince French literature, as in his allusions to Dumas and Balzac. Then there is the musketeer. You'll enjoy Picasso's images of this rakish nobleman, master of the sword and daring in his romantic exploits. The musketeer must have given Picasso a pretext to free-associate with Rembrandt, Velázquez, and other great painters of the Baroque.
La Celestina, the first novel and most influential work of the early Spanish Renaissance, is also quoted. See some of Picasso's sugar-aquatints (a variation of the aquatint process) for this cycle. In that medium, Picasso worked directly on the plate with his fingers and a brush rather than needles and burins. There's plenty of caricature and drama in these works, reminiscent of certain Goya aquatints.
La Fornarina was a young woman whom Raphael Sanzio painted. More than two centuries later French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres borrowed from the Renaissance painter to produce Raphael and the Fornarina, after which she became a romantic legend. Mentioned by name in many works of poetry and fiction, including Honoré de Balzac's Scenes from a Courtesan's Life, La Fornarina was also appropriated by Picasso.
Emulating Ingres's drawing style, Picasso depicts young Raphael stepping right out of Ingres's painting. But he doesn't hold Fornarina on his lap, as in the Ingres depiction. In this etching Raphael is ready to mate with her. One can imagine the old Spaniard having fun with the ensuing foreplay between the two, and at the expense of an enigmatic goggle-eyed observer: Pope Julius II.
In "Suite 347" you can also find some of Picasso's friends, including Jacqueline, his last female companion. He portrays himself in different guises: as Greek farmer, as aging voyeur, as a bust, or as just one more amid a group of bystanders (as Hitchcock used to do in his movies).
There are so many things to admire in Picasso's prints, not least of which is his deliberate and steady pulse, especially for an 87-year-old. But there is also the wealth of images, the pervasive wit that invokes so many references to art history, as in his shifting from Neoclassical to Baroque to Tachism in one etching. And as regards his knowledge of the nude female form, he's second to none.
"Suite 347" summons Picasso's reservoir of memories and metaphors, almost as if it were his last chance. It is a definitive representation, a final curtain for the artist seeing himself being seen by others.
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