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Picasso and his facet as an engraver

(See here etching engraving Suite 347, plate 55)

From 1899 to 1972, Pablo Ruiz Picasso devoted himself constantly to engraving, creating nearly 2,200 prints that serve almost as a personal diary of his life. These perfectly dated works offer a detailed view of his artistic evolution. His skill in drawing allowed him to reach expressive achievements in engraving, comparable to his other recognized artistic works. In a profound creative process, Picasso’s prints were produced, both individually and in series, reflecting his favorite subjects. Given his insatiable curiosity and mastery of all printmaking techniques, Picasso is considered one of the most outstanding printmakers in history.

In his beginnings in the art of graphic printing, the young artist was captivated by techniques such as etching and drypoint, spending much time observing copper plates engraved in the Parisian workshops of experts in the field, such as Eugène Delâtre, Louis Fort and, in particular, Roger Lacourière, who would later introduce him to new printing techniques. Eventually, Picasso would have his own printing press, which allowed him to fully immerse himself in the art of engraving, where he was able to experiment, learn and innovate. We highlight in his career four large series of engravings that we describe below:

 

Etching, Suite of the Saltimbanquis, year 1905

In the evolution of the artist’s engraved work, we highlight what was the first series, created between 1904 and 1906, known as “The Saltimbanquis Suite“The series consists of 15 engravings edited by Vollard in 1913. In the series, the characters evolve chronologically, passing through the end of the blue period and entering the pink period. The plates used were made of zinc and other copper and were engraved with etching and drypoint processes, types of engraving that the artist would use frequently in many other engravings.

The Vollard suite

In the 1920s, Picasso’ s lithography experienced its beginnings and, from 1930, focused on the outstanding “Suite Vollard” series, which represents the pinnacle of the astonishing designs that the artist had been developing for some time. From 1930 to 1936, he created a series of 97 copper engravings, which he sold in 1937 to Ambroise Vollard, along with three portraits of him. In return, Picasso received some works he wanted for his private collection. Originally, he had intended to do more portraits of Vollard, but this was not possible due to the advanced age of the dealer, who was already in his seventies. This series of 100 etchings would later become known as the “Vollard Suite”.

 

Etching, Vollard Suite, year 1933

The Vollard Suite reflects themes that Picasso also explored in his paintings and sculptures during that time, one of the most exciting periods of his career. Four central themes emerge from this suite: The Sculptor’s Workshop, The Minotaur, Rembrandt and The Battle of the Master. There are two main cycles: one focusing on the sculptor in his studio, which relates to his fervent work in sculpture at Boisgeloup in the early 1930s and to the etchings of “Chef d’oeuvre inconnu”, a work that had a significant impact on Picasso. The second predominant theme focuses on the myth of the Minotaur and the metaphors related to bullfighting. In these works, Picasso innovates by using techniques such as burin, drypoint, etching and sugar aquatint in surprising ways.

The Evolution of Picasso: From Lithography to Linoleum

The plates that Picasso created during the war period were mostly used in the elaboration of books.

In 1945, Fernand Mourlot experienced a sudden burst of creativity in lithography, as if trying to recover the past. Picasso’s constantly improving skills and inventive nature opened doors to innovations in the field of lithography, achieving astonishing results. At that time, he used the aquatint technique for large plates published by the Galerie Louise Leiris, as well as for lithographs and all the works that followed.

After moving south, Picasso faced material challenges in his lithographic work. However, thanks to his relationship with the printer Arnéra de Vallauris, he was inspired to produce linoleum prints, predominantly in color, between 1959 and 1963. Jacques Frélaut reaffirmed the tradition of collaborating with Picasso; he traveled to Cannes, prepared the plates for the acid technique and made test prints with the artist using etchings and aquatints on the press located in the basement of the Villa Californie. Most of these prints were also incorporated into books. In 1963, Piero and Aldo Crommelynck brought an arm press from Paris to Mougins, where Picasso settled permanently. From that moment on, techniques such as burin, etching, drypoint and aquatint were used to capture in black and white, as well as in color, Picasso’s incessant inspiration and the torrent of spontaneous ideas.

By following the evolution of the work according to its dates, we really get to know Picasso.
These different periods and routes that we use as references are, in reality, consecutive stages of a continuity that defines the phenomenon that is Picasso, manifesting itself at each step. Picasso is simultaneously singular and diverse. His friend Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler seemed to allude to this when he said that the artist lives constantly in the present, in every instant, absorbing all the richness of the world.

Picasso’s speed and skill in graphic printing are evidenced in the 11 plates of the Vollard Suite that he created in just four days in January 1934, as well as in the 26 aquatints for the Tauromaquia that he did in a few hours in 1957.

Picasso not only experimented and met the challenges of the craft, but also overcame them, achieving results that many would consider impossible. In every technique he tackled, he succeeded. For him, being an engraver, lithographer or even working on linoleum meant being a true craftsman, immersing himself deeply in the secrets of the profession with the dedication and passion of a true creator. He was a master in the use of any engraving tool, bringing out the most delicate nuances of each material.

It is not surprising that the artist was inclined to constant experimentation, sometimes requiring as many as thirty stages before the ideal masterpiece emerges from the engraver’s hands under the justification of “Bon à tirer”, and that he was still sometimes reluctant to give permission to print. It is through the study of these versions, unknown to most and as yet unpublished, that we can understand Picasso’s working method, his incessant exploration of new forms of expression and the meticulousness behind his process.

Picasso’s last stages: Suite 347 and Suite 156

Suite 347 Pablo Picasso

Etching, Suite 347, year 1968

In his later years, Picasso created two outstanding series of prints: Suite 347 around 1968 and Suite 156 in 1971.

In 1968, at the age of eighty-six, Picasso began a period of intense activity in printmaking, specifically from March 16 to October 5. In these 204 working days, he produced 347 pieces, engraving up to seven copper sheets in a single day.

Suite 347 takes up themes that Picasso had previously explored, including references to the French writer Honoré de Balzac, the painters Rembrandt and El Greco, as well as his own family: parents, spouses and lovers, who are often depicted as performers or in circus scenes. With a mixture of irony and humor, Picasso reflects in these works a journey through his life, often representing himself as an observer in these images full of fantasy and imagination.

Suite 347 has fifty copies and seventeen artist’s proofs. In addition, five tests were performed on “Rives” paper before strengthening the coppers. The Bancaja Foundation owns one of these artist’s proofs, signed in pencil by Picasso.

Suite 347 reflects the vast imagery of Picasso in his old age: from the great masters and the universe of bullfighting and flamenco, to Greco-Roman mythology and the Mediterranean landscape. Some sixty-six images focus on “La Celestina,” a Spanish novel of which Picasso owned two antique copies. In addition to mentions of classical figures and Picasso’s personal memories, there are references to everyday life, such as aspects of his childhood, including stories about Romans and “The Thousand and One Nights” . Historical figures, such as General De Gaulle, also make an appearance. In addition, the suite contains allusions to renowned artists such as Rembrandt, Raphael, Ingres, Manet, Monet and the painting “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz” by El Greco.

On the other hand, “Suite 156” stands as one of Picasso’s last sketchbooks, where he directly records his feelings and experiences. The works reveal the intensity of Picasso’s imagination in his later years, intertwining fantasies with his unique memory of art history. A recurring theme in his life and work is sexuality, often represented through the viewer’s perspective. It also focuses on the female body in motion, an interest Picasso shared with Degas, whom he considered a curious observer of the natural nude. Hence, within Suite 156, Picasso created more than sixty engravings depicting nude women in a brothel, with Degas as a witness, this figure makes his first appearance in this series on March 11, 1971 and the last on June 14 of the same year.

Etching and drypoint, Suite 156, year 1971

The engravings of Suite 156, made by Picasso on copper plates between January 1970 and March 1972,are a testament to the artist’s talent even at the advanced age of almost 90. This collection reveals Picasso’s allusions, reflecting influences from great masters such as Rembrandt, Degas, Goya, Murillo and Delacroix. Recurring themes in Picasso’s work, such as female figures and erotic inspiration, feature prominently. In addition, the suite evidences the technical experimentation that characterized the painter: from the basic use of acid to sophisticated aquatints with resins or sugar, and the technique of the black manner. The variety is not only seen in the techniques, but also in the different sizes of the pieces in this series. The edition consists of 50 numbered copies plus 15 artist’s proofs marked in Roman numerals and three printer’s proofs.

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