Late Picasso

Nicholas Penny

  • Je suis le Cahier: The Sketchbooks of Picasso edited by Arnold Glimcher and Marc Glimcher
    Thames and Hudson, 349 pp, £36.00, September 1986, ISBN 0 500 23461 2
  • The Musèe Picasso, Paris: Catalogue of the Collections. Paintings, Papiers Collés, Picture Reliefs, Sculptures, Ceramics by Marie-Laure Besnard-Bernadac, Michéle Richet and Hélène Seckel
    Thames and Hudson, 315 pp, £25.00, October 1986, ISBN 0 500 23461 2
  • Degas: The Complete Etchings, Lithographs and Monotypes by Jean Adhémar and Françoise Cachin
    Thames and Hudson, 290 pp, £25.00, October 1986, ISBN 0 500 09114 5

In three of the Royal Academy’s exhibition rooms, the Pace Gallery of New York (presumably a commercial organisation but revealing nothing about itself) has displayed in perspex boxes some of the 175 sketchbooks which Picasso had hoarded, and which were unstudied, and in many cases entirely unknown, when he died. We admire brisk notes made of Paris night-life at the turn of the century, and then our attention is arrested by six drawings which include no topical reference at all. They represent a female nude kneeling, facing a larger, shadowy, seated figure of indeterminate sex between whose legs her head is placed. A seventh drawing shows the kneeling girl alone. The thick, rugged, but fluent black crayon outline is reminiscent of the most powerful and mysterious prints by Munch. There are eloquent back views, kneeling or crouching women, sad sexual embraces, also groups suggestive of shame and penitence, in Picasso’s early paintings. How do these sketches relate to them?

We open Je suis le Cahier, the heavy volume which we have bought precisely to answer such questions. Alas, the sketchbook we are looking at is only featured in the back in a checklist (wrongly entitled a catalogue raisonné) which supplies dimensions, the date (1900-1901), a postage-stamp reproduction of one sheet, and a list of the subjects depicted. We are not even told who owns this, or any other, sketchbook, although one can sometimes work this out from the photographic credits at the end.

The flow and weight of these crayon drawings is replaced by a nervous, fine outline, mostly in pen, sometimes with wash, for profile drawings of fragile youths and saltim-banques made a few years later. This change makes still more startling a set of rough, angular, black crayon diagrams made in the spring of 1907, evidently as rehearsals for that ‘important’ but horrid painting the Demoiselles d’Avignon. Are these rapid experiments at reducing the human form to an elementary geometric alphabet, or stylised grafitti in which the female body is converted into something as mindless and undignified, but as admirably designed to give pain, as a clothes peg or nutcracker? Perhaps the latter rationalised as the former.

Round the corner are other violent jagged drawings of women but also the most beautiful and impressive series of sheets in this room: those in pencil, in Sketchbook No 59 of 1916. But the sketchbook cannot be taken to pieces and the striding harlequins, a bowl, and a bunch of bananas, are displayed as photographs. They have, all the same, an astonishing clarity which has nothing to do with the clarity of fact. There are distortions, but no affectation of brutality, nor even archaism. We find ourselves constantly aware of decisions to omit or eliminate – of the alternatives eradicated in the mind and sometimes also on the paper. What appears at first as finality becomes dynamic: every line, compelled into place, seems liable to spring out of it. For this sketchbook, and for the one (No 42) for the Demoiselles, the catalogue turns out to be more helpful. Both sketchbooks are reproduced in their entirety and prefaced by informative and intelligent essays by eminent scholars (Robert Rosenblum in one case, Theodore Reff in the other).

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