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Unseen Picasso

The Norton Simon Museum presents Unseen Picasso, a small exhibition featuring 16 exceptional prints made between the 1930s and 1960s that illustrate Pablo Picasso’s bold experiments, technically and stylistically, in the graphic arts.

For most of his long career and life, Picasso (1881–1973) engaged in printmaking with a gusto and freedom of expression that is thrilling to experience. No print medium intimidated him, and his prodigious facility in intaglio (etching, drypoint and aquatint), lithography and linocut inspired him to deconstruct and reinvent customary practices. Unseen Picasso examines a select group of iconic and lesser-known prints of enduring subjects from the artist’s repertoire, including his muses and the nude. The exhibition looks at the singular characteristics that make these prints rare or unique and therefore infrequently seen in exhibition or publication. Further, it invites visitors to look closely at the characteristics in each impression that distinguish the Norton Simon print from others produced in the edition.

Though prints are usually produced in multiples, one-of-a-kind impressions are sometimes pulled in the course of a print run. They may be proofs or undescribed states in an edition (a state is any stage in the development of a print at which impressions are pulled). A telling case is the 1946 lithograph Two Nude Women, a consuming subject for Picasso that compelled him to transform a recognizable subject into a minimalist abstraction. The Museum’s unique impression of the eighth state—Picasso created 21 states exploring this composition—is also noteworthy as the sole print from this campaign to be printed in color. Picasso’s ambitious four-color lithograph Woman with a Hairnet illustrates another critical classification in printmaking. Here, the artist’s inscription “Bon à tirer” (ready to print) authorizes the printer to “pull” an edition. Picasso’s signature identifies this trial proof as the model of perfection that the small edition would have to match.

At work in the printer’s studio, Picasso used whatever papers were on hand to evaluate his progress. For one proof representing his lover, Dora Maar, the artist used japan paper. Though it is unknown whether he chose this support for aesthetic reasons, the proof occupies a singular status on account of it. Japan paper has long been prized among printmakers for its thickness, slight sheen and ecru coloring, and for Dora Maar (1939), it provides a suitable foil to the Prussian blue ink adopted for this aquatint (an intaglio technique that produces effects similar to a wash drawing). By annotating this print “epreuve d’état” (artist’s proof), Picasso indicated that it was to be reserved for his own use.

In 1958, Picasso dove headlong into producing linocuts, a type of relief printing that uses a linoleum block. The pliant nature of linoleum offered little resistance to cutting, and it served as a good vehicle for Picasso’s impulse to create compositions in which color and line were nearly inseparable. Over time, pigments can change, lighten or darken, affecting the artist’s original intent for the linocut. This is the case with certain blues. Bacchanal with Goats and Spectator (1959) is a standout in this context on account of the stability and vigor of its palette. The royal blue—seen in the mountain lake and the sky that peeks through the decorative pattern of clouds—remains vibrant. This vitality is important in an animated composition in which color forms communicate a sense of spatial depth.

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