Picasso & Poetry


by Pablo Picasso, introduction by John Russell, poems translated by Alan S. Trueblood
Braziller, 169 pp., $50.00

Although Picasso enjoyed his excursions into the theater, and in particular his collaborations with the Diaghilev ballet, for the most part he disliked working to order and shunned commissions of all kinds. He did, nevertheless, illustrate some fifty books and was peripherally involved in the production of twice as many again, contributing frontispieces (often in the form of a portrait sketch of the author), dust jackets, vignettes, and so forth. Even in cases where his images figure prominently, most of them bear no relation to the text and were simply selected from existing material that seemed not inappropriate; such was the prestige of his name that authors and publishers were happy to settle for what was offered to them.

In approximately twenty cases, however, the illustrations do relate to, or at least parallel, the texts even if they weren’t especially created for the purpose. At least six of these achieve the status of livres d’artiste, works of art or precious objects in their own right. And his Góngora, which came out in 1948, was possibly the one closest to his heart. Braziller has now reissued it in an approximate facsimile (approximate in that although the scale and format of the original are retained, the superb quality of the paper, which was especially manufactured for the original, could not be duplicated for economic reasons and inevitably there is a certain loss of tonal subtlety). Góngora was to affect the future development of Picasso’s art in a way that his other literary collaborations did not. In 1905 Apollinaire was already stressing Picasso’s heritage from the Spanish seventeenth-century baroque. But it was in old age that it informed his art most fully and poignantly, and the work on Góngora must have helped to set the stage for the extraordinary visual pageant—and much of the late work can only be described in terms of theater—that was still to come.

The question of Picasso’s relationship to literature is fascinating and complex. During his formative years as a painter he had been attracted to art that had a literary flavor: to the Pre-Raphaelites, Munch, Lautrec, and the lithographer Steinlen. Impressionism and anything else that smacked of peinture pure he eschewed. Throughout his life he preferred the company of writers, particularly poets, to that of other painters and sculptors. His own literary output was considerable and has never received the attention it deserves.1 From the mid-1930s onward he produced poetry and semi-automatic, stream-of-consciousness texts in both Spanish and French; one of the last and most significant of these, El Entierro del Conde de Orgaz, pays tribute, in its title at least, to Góngora’s contemporary and friend El Greco. Picasso also produced two plays and The Dream and Lie of Franco (1937), a unique fusion of words and visual imagery (based on the popular Spanish aleluyas, or strip cartoons) and perhaps the most effective artistic political broadsheet of this century.

And yet several people who knew Picasso well claimed that he read very little. Jaime Sabartés,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.