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 nightlife 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 saltimbanques 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).

Nowhere else in the exhibition do we encounter the concentration of these sheets from the 1916 sketchbook, except perhaps in the near-abstract Cubist drawings in a sketchbook of 1918. But severe discipline does not disappear and is certainly evident in the drawing of a woman and her son, extracted from Sketchbook No 77 and probably dating from about 1922, which must be one of the most beautiful drawings that Picasso ever made. A thousand varied strokes of the sharp pencil make this a remarkably finished work for Picasso, but it remains, typically, not entirely resolved. The woman’s massive forms, with ungainly elbow and knee (Picasso never tired of avoiding elegance), appear to have been hewn out of a marble block: while a few parts such as the bluntly simplified feet are only roughed out, most of the figure is carefully filed, and even highly polished. This drawing is admirably reproduced in the catalogue (although the sheen of the graphite is not apparent, of course). There is, however, no commentary on it or on its companion sheets, and no reproductions of related works among his oil paintings of heavy seated Classical matrons and flat-footed damsels.

By now we are in the second room. There are ingenious improvisations – some startling, some charming – and numerous games which involve the disassembly and reassembly of the human body, along lines suggested by both Cubism and Surrealism, with results which are sometimes demonic, sometimes witty. The final room is filled with attempts at the demonic and the witty which are at best merely humorous and at worst embarrassing. Looking at the orgy in Sketchbook No 165 reminds us that Picasso, towards the end of his life, became addicted to all-in wrestling on the telly – as John Richardson informs us in the sympathetic account of those years (and brave attempt to defend Picasso’s late work) which appeared in the New York Review of Books on 19 July 1984.

However private these sketchbooks were, they reveal, more and more as we approach the latest in date, the artist as a performer rather than an explorer. By the end we conceive of him as an actor, strutting and grimacing before a mirror with manic rapidity, never pausing for long enough to reflect that he has nothing to rehearse for. And the facile versatility is, in any case, appropriate for burlesque, rather than for the tragic or pastoral mode of the works by Ingres and Manet and David which he takes as his sources.

A visit to the Hôtel Salé in the Marais where the Musée Picasso opened a year ago is as exhilarating and depressing as a trip to the Royal Academy exhibition. Here, too, there are masterpieces from the artist’s own collection, many of them all the more striking for being relatively unfamiliar: the gouache Two Brothers of 1906, for example, and the oil painting of a pitcher and apples of 1919. But Picasso also cherished the cheap, the sentimental, the inflated, and the sensational among his own paintings. His reputation is least vulnerable in his work as a printmaker – but neither prints nor drawings by Picasso in the Musée Picasso’s collection are included in this catalogue (which, in the French version, is properly qualified as sommaire). His most memorable images – whether of sleeping women or gored horses – were created in black and white, and his most monumental works were not all executed on a large scale.

One of the claims made for the sketchbooks, justly in some cases, is that they enable us to watch the artist develop a single theme on a daily basis. This is what we can observe much more completely in his prints: in the progressive states of single lithographs, for example, but also in the sequences of prints, such as the famous series of etchings of the Thirties known as the Vollard Suite, which depicts first the sculptor and his model and then the Minotaur. The 347 etchings, dry points and aquatints executed between March and October 1968 (and published that winter by the Institute of Contemporary Art in a little volume, with the ‘explicit’ depictions of Raphael’s fornicating tucked into the back cover) strike us as being akin to a diary of Picasso’s imaginary life, with all the vividness, and the self-indulgence, that might suggest.

The ‘347 Series’, as it has come to be known, is surely also the most impressive achievement of the artist’s late period. The prints have none of the solemn lyricism which is so remarkable in the Vollard Suite, but they do achieve some of the poignant comedy and even a little of the tender irony found in the exceptional sequence of drawings of the aging artist and his model made over the winter of 1953/4 (and collected in a volume published by Vintage Books in the US with an introduction by Rebecca West). There is none of the epic grandeur of the Minotaur etchings, but the displays of whores and models and clowns, and the ritual sacrifices, rapes and vigils, have a phantasmagoric character which is often both genuinely menacing and funny. Here we find ideas taken from Goya and Rembrandt and Ingres, oddly mixed up with the artist’s own earlier work as they might be in a dream. But the most surprising influence is that of Degas’s monotypes, some of which Picasso owned (as can be seen from the Musée Picasso catalogue).

The reprint of Degas: The Complete Etchings, Lithographs and Monotypes (published in France in 1973 and translated the following year) is welcome, although it must be pointed out that the section on etchings and lithographs by Adhémar has now been largely replaced by the catalogue of the exhibition put on by the Museum of Fine Art, Boston in November 1984, and subsequently shown in Philadelphia and at the Hayward Gallery. It is welcome, above all, for the reproductions of the monotypes and for Françoise Cachin’s essay, which provides an excellent introduction to these works which few people saw in Degas’s lifetime and which remained little known for a long time after his death. It is the brothel scenes – the sharply observed but drastically abbreviated depictions of animal rituals in dark rooms – which Picasso was struck by, although it is the large close-up single figures which now strike us as most startling in presentation and execution. Both artists were interested in exploiting the accidental effects of printmaking but for Degas this was related to the unpredictable aspects of our encounters with the visual world. Although these prints were obviously recollections, rather than made on the spot, Degas is re-creating the impact of something seen, whereas Picasso, even in his earliest work, executed before Degas died, was little interested in how the real world hits, or misses, our eyes.

It was obviously this need to invent his own world which was one of the great strengths of Picasso – but it also placed an intolerable strain on him. That his work is very uneven indeed is not a novel opinion. Indeed it is central to the two highly-acclaimed paperback introductions to his art written in English over the last twenty-five years – John Berger’s Success and Failure of Picasso (Penguin, 1965) and Timothy Hilton’s Picasso (Thames and Hudson, published 1975, reprinted 1983 and still available). Berger’s Marxism obliges him to propose that it is ‘both possible and logical’ to think of Cubism as ‘dialectical materialism’ – and as a modern, urban and democratic art form. He proceeds to emphasise the café tables and newspapers. The violins and guitars are a problem, but ‘after all, they also were man-made’ – unlike the female nudes, which, together with the village roof tops, are conveniently forgotten. Marxism, however, does enable him to perceive the significance of Picasso’s Arcadian mythology and to outline some of the paradoxes of his position in society – as an exile, a bohemian, a millionaire, a magician. Hilton’s viewpoint is different. He knows that Cubism was of ‘no conceivable interest to the common man’. What matters to him is the ‘modern tradition’, ‘progressive art’, the apostolic succession from Cézanne to Jackson Pollock, and Picasso’s part in this.

Concerning the painter’s work for Diaghilev, Hilton remarks that others have pointed out ‘how natural it was for Picasso, with his delight in the performing arts ... to collaborate with a theatrical spectacle’. But, he sternly observes: ‘This is a major misreading of the nature of modern art.’ End of discussion. During the following decades, Picasso failed to participate in what were the ‘major developments’ in Paris; he discerned but rejected the ‘genuine breakthrough’ which led to Abstract Expressionism. While it seems daft to judge Picasso in this way, it is of course the case that Picasso himself must, at least intermittently, have believed in a ‘modern tradition’, in a relay of artists making increasingly daring – or at least increasingly desperate and narrowly aesthetic – experiments. Salvation lay in the extreme. Cubism, which Hilton considers, with a fantastic but widely-shared over-confidence, to be ‘the most radical change in art since the Renaissance’, was, indeed, the product of this faith. But Picasso had his doubts.

Despite the formidable energy which he put into his Cubist work, his imagination and intellect were surely more engaged by the human figure. His greatest work consists of such paintings as La Toilette, the Two Brothers and the portrait of Gertrude Stein which date from shortly before the invention of Cubism, and some of the drawings he made in 1918 (The Bathers, for example, in the Fogg Art Gallery) and in the early Twenties (the mother and child at present on exhibition at the Royal Academy) – together with the best of his etchings of the Thirties. Such art always entailed a personal ‘breakthrough’, but it was not ‘progressive’. Rather he was attempting to recapture elementary, ancient values in art through ancient (at times Classical, at times archaic) means. He has, in any case, more kinship with Puvis de Chavannes than with Jackson Pollock.