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Putting Picasso in His Place

Picasso: The Blue and Rose Periods

by Pierre Daix, by Georges Boudaille
New York Graphic Society, 348, 831 illustrations (61 in color) pp., $35.00

The Sculpture of Picasso

by Roland Penrose
Museum of Modern Art, 232, 260 illustrations pp., (paperback, $5.95) (paper)

No artist has ever become such a legend in his lifetime as Picasso, or been so much written about. The obvious competitor is Michelangelo. The unveiling of the Last Judgment in 1541 was awaited as an event of international importance on which ambassadors to the Holy See reported to their masters; princes, cardinals, and men of letters begged to be given the slightest drawing from his hand, often with no success; and three accounts of his career appeared before his death, one of them in effect dictated by himself. But this was and remained an exceptional case, and there are remarkably few instances before the nineteenth century of artists being celebrated by full-dress biographies or monographs during their own lifetime. With the Romantic movement the situation changed. The artist became a genius and attracted interest from a much wider and less expert public than in previous centuries. But even as late as this artists were usually only commemorated by biographies after their death. An obvious exception is Turner, for at the time of his death Ruskin had already published two volumes of Modern Painters, which was conceived as a monument to the artist’s genius. Delacroix and Ingres were much discussed in articles and reviews, but no general account of their artistic careers was written till well after their deaths.

With Picasso the story is very different. Admittedly the attitude of art historians toward their subject has changed since the mid-nineteenth century, and they have become keenly aware of how important it is to record as much as possible about artists while the evidence is still available from their own mouths or from those of their friends. They looked back with gratitude to Vasari—who was much denigrated in the interval on account of his inaccuracies—for the trouble he took in traveling all over Italy to collect the best information that he could find about the activities of artists still alive or only recently dead. But it must be said at once that Picasso has benefited to a unique degree from this new approach.

His first exhibitions in Paris produced several penetrating and intelligent reviews, and in the years before the First War his work was discussed and publicized in articles by his close friend, Guillaume Apollinaire, who also devoted to him a large section of his Peintres Cubistes, published in 1913. After the war the first general books on Picasso began to appear: Raynal’s lively essay in 1921, Cocteau’s short pamphlet in 1923. The Cahiers d’Art, founded in 1926 by Christian Zervos, was largely a reflection of Picasso’s interests and contained frequent and important articles on his latest works. Finally in 1932 Zervos began the mammoth publication, intended to include every known painting and drawing by the artist and now in its eighteenth volume, which brings the survey up to the year 1959. Since the Second War the bibliography on Picasso has grown even more rapidly. Reminiscences by personal friends, monographs on individual periods of the artist’s career, or even individual works such as Guernica or War and Peace, sketchbooks published in facsimile, volumes treating separate aspects of his art—etchings, lithographs, sculpture, ceramics, book-illustration—and catalogues of the series of great exhibitions which have been held all over Europe and America have swollen the list to one far beyond the purse of the average art historian and even beyond his bookshelf space.

THEN WHY MORE BOOKS on the artist? The answer is simply that the subject, like the artist, is inexhaustible. New works, or new facts about works already known, are discovered and necessitate redating and perhaps reconsideration of a whole phase of his art. New interpretations—sometimes interesting, sometimes merely ingenious—are proposed, often provoking discussion and causing alternative or contradictory hypotheses to be put forward. Even new biographical material—perhaps about his very early years or from a previously reticent girlfriend—may also have to be incorporated; or Picasso suddenly decides to allow the paintings hitherto hidden in his studio to be published. It is all unpredictable, but never dull.

The two books here reviewed are of opposite kinds. One is a minutely worked and detailed study of a short period in Picasso’s career (1900-1906), and the other a general survey of his works in a single medium—sculpture.

Messrs. Daix and Boudaille have devoted nearly 350 pages to seven years of the artist’s career, but this is by no means excessive. Their claim that their catalogue of the paintings is “the most complete published to date” is certainly justified, though the publishers are perhaps less prudent in stating that it includes “all the works of Picasso” (their italics) produced during the years in question. How imprudent this claim is appears from the fact that between the publication of the French edition and the English translation twenty-two new works, including paintings, pastels, and drawings, have been discovered and are published in a supplementary section—not to mention that, on the authors’ own statement, they have only included a selection of the drawings.

The volume does, however, include a large number of works which were unknown to Zervos and which add substantially to our knowledge of the artist’s early period. Those discovered since the French edition include several of great interest: yet another version of The Embrace, a gouache version of the Woman with a Crow, painted a few days after the better-known composition, and a strangely moving head of Casagemas, dead, with the wound in his temple clearly indicated, but not laid out in his coffin as in the two oil paintings. In a few instances the authors correct inaccuracies in generally accepted titles. At last, for instance, it is clearly recorded that V.62 represents the top of a bus and not a bateau-mouche, as has always been stated in previous catalogues.

THE AUTHORS have also done the reader a considerable service by reprinting a number of documents which are normally difficult to find, notably early exhibition catalogues and reviews. In a slightly different field, that of dating, they also make a valuable contribution. In many cases their emendations may only alter accepted dates by a few months, but with Picasso, particularly in his early years, even this difference may be significant, so rapid was his development and so varied his style. In this way he presents the art historian with a unique problem, and we should be grateful for every crumb of information, provided it is well documented, and this appears to be the case with Daix’s and Boudaille’s book. In some cases, moreover, redating even by a short period may mean that a picture was painted in Paris rather than Barcelona, or vice versa, and this can be of great interest in following up the problem of how Picasso was affected by his immediate environment. In particular the authors have been able to bring out the great importance of the visit to Gosol in 1906, which had been to some extent obscured by the fact that Zervos had dated the visit to 1905, with the result that certain important works executed there were attributed to Picasso’s time in Paris. It is now clear, for instance, that the Two Boys in the Chester Dale collection was painted at Gosol in the summer of 1906, whereas the Boy leading a Horse in the Paley collection was produced in Paris a few months earlier. The change in style is slight but very important. In the Two Boys Picasso has shed the last traces of the elegance which characterized the work of his Pink period and has attained a far purer classicism; in fact he is already set on the path which led him to the Iberian and Negro periods.

Occasionally the authors have been able to take advantage of statements by the artist himself to make a major change in dating, as for instance in the case of the head of a woman wearing a white mantilla (XV. 42), which has always been dated to 1905-1906 and was indeed included in this section in the book, but which, according to a statement by Picasso made while the volume was in proof, was actually painted in 1901, a change which it should have been possible to make on stylistic grounds.

AS THE AUTHORS STATE, reasons of space make it impossible for them to reproduce all the drawings, but this is a great loss, particularly for those connected with paintings. One of the great merits of this book is, however, that it enables the reader to study drawings and paintings together to a greater extent than does any other work on the artist, although the arrangement of the drawings is not always consistent. The book is divided into sixteen sections and theoretically the drawings are separated from the paintings and put into a subsection with a “D” number, an arrangement which complicates an already complex system: a painting will have a reference of the form XII. 26, and a related drawing may be D. XII, 4 and be several pages away; in fact, however, watercolors and gouaches are sometimes classed as paintings and sometimes as drawings, and in a few sections some pen or pencil drawings are put with the paintings. Greater continuity of numbering would have made the book much easier to use.

It is also regrettable that the authors decided to start in 1900 and not to include Picasso’s very early works. To have done so would not have added much to the size of the book and would have enabled the authors to trace completely the artist’s development up to 1906. As it is they begin the book with a short section containing a few somewhat arbitrarily chosen works of 1898 and 1899. The book also ends in a rather ragged manner with a section including some works connected with the Demoiselles d’Avignon and leaving out others. Here, however, a neat formula would have been harder to find, and some arbitrary decision probably had to be made.

The plates are small but reasonably clear. Those in color are on the whole good and are repeated in black and white; they include some not reproduced in color elsewhere. In a few cases the colored plates are badly cut, particularly the two unpublished studies of the dead Casagemas. One of these (VI. 5) presents a curious problem, because the colored and the black-and-white plates appear at first sight to reproduce different pictures. The shape of the flame is quite different in the two cases, an effect which must presumably be due to an optical illusion produced by a combination of cutting and color.

The grouping together—or nearly together—of drawings, gouaches, small oil sketches, and finished compositions is particularly useful in cases such as the Abreuvoir, for which the authors publish seven studies unknown to Zervos. These give the reader a new impression of the links which connect the big composition with the separate elements, the boy leading the horse and the various youths riding.

This group also reminds one how completely at this time Picasso subscribed to traditional beliefs about the way an artist works. He invents a motive, develops it, drops it, and tries another, combines both, modifies each of them and their relationship, and finally, by a series of subtle adjustments, arrives at the perfect expression of what he set out to say. His great classical predecessors, Raphael and Poussin, worked in precisely the same way, and so did all their academic followers throughout two or three centuries. Picasso continued to employ the same method in the Demoiselles d’Avignon, in Guernica, and even, though with less concentration, in War and Peace. In his later works, however, he abandoned this principle altogether for the hit-or-miss technique employed in the “Variations” series, in which, instead of gradually approaching a solution through a series of experiments, he throws on the canvas a series of alternatives, all equally finished but in some cases, one may feel, ill-digested and hasty. There is a lot to be said for the old-fashioned method.

SIR ROLAND PENROSE’S BOOK, The Sculpture of Picasso, was published in connection with the exhibition held last year at the Museum of Modern Art, which was organized by the author. Substantially the exhibition was the same as that held at the Tate Gallery in London, a few months earlier, and the new volume is in large part a reprint of the original catalogue and introduction though the publication is more lavish and the author has added to the introduction two or three pages of speculation on the origins of the art of sculpture with which not every reader will necessarily agree. The book provides however an admirable pictorial summary of Picasso’s achievement in a medium which he has used, if not continuously, at least at many crucial periods in his career. The Introduction gives a clear and concise account of this achievement, and is particularly interesting in the interpretation which the author gives of the connections between the sculpture itself and the groups of etchings such as The Sculptor’s Studio in which Picasso presents the sculptor as the type of the artist—though, as Sir Roland points out, at some moments he seems to hesitate, with characteristic ambiguity, between the sculptor and the minotaur as the symbol of his own personality.

In some points of detail I am tempted to disagree with Sir Roland. In the etching reproduced on page 17, for instance, is it really the case that the group of the bull with two girls is “some incredible tour de force of his own creation”? I had always taken this group to be in gay and rather drunken flesh and blood rather than in sculpture, and saw the actors as the same as those in another etching from the series, also reproduced in the book on page 22.

I confess that I am somewhat heretical about Picasso’s sculpture, which seems to me to consist of several different categories of varying importance. First there is a relatively small series of truly monumental works which belong to the great tradition of European sculpture, both in kind and in quality: The Jester of 1905, the Woman’s Head of 1908, the bronze heads of 1931-32, the Man with a Sheep and the Death’s Head of 1944, and the Pregnant Woman of 1950; secondly, a series of works, like the cardboard constructions of 1912-14, which were means to an end rather than works of art in their own right—though one must perhaps except the Glass of Absinthe, which was apparently the only one to be cast in bronze; and, finally, a series of works which are primarily jeux d’esprit, in which Picasso shows his dazzling ingenuity and the endless fertility of his invention, but which often seem to be little more. He is a genius at producing something out of nothing, but there are times when one feels that the something is not really enough. A few works, like the She Goat and the Baboon cut across these demarkations of categories. They are certainly tours de force, but they are much more than that.

The New York and London versions of the exhibition differed from the Paris show in that the latter had a whole section devoted to ceramics, which included many works germane to Picasso’s development as a sculptor. In the New York and London exhibitions the gap was to some extent filled by the inclusion of a few pieces of pottery, mainly birds and vase-women, which gave an idea, though an incomplete one, of the artist’s performance in this medium in the years 1949 to 1953. In certain respects, however, the lack of emphasis on this phase was an advantage, for limiting the witty and dexterous ceramics made the monumental sculptures stand out more prominently. In this way Picasso’s true stature in this field became more apparent.

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