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Picasso's Printmaking History

Artists, Editorial

The name Pablo Picasso instantly evokes the towering minotaur of Guernica (1937), or the angular, distorted figures of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Few, however, think of Le Repas Frugal, or The Frugal Repast. Despite being a print and not a painting, Le Repas Frugal is arguably as evocative and visually compelling as any of Picasso’s greatest works, and equally sought after in the art market. In 2022, it went under the hammer for over 6 million pounds, making it the most expensive print ever sold at auction according to Christie’s.

Picasso’s printmaking prowess has been overlooked and undervalued in most accounts of the iconic French artist’s history, even though prints have always represented some of the most in-demand and accessible pieces in Picasso’s oeuvre. By most estimates, Picasso’s print collection vastly outnumbered his paintings. Between 1899 and 1972, Picasso travelled across Europe, mastering and even reinventing nearly every printmaking technique in existence, generating a massive oeuvre of some 2,400 prints. Among these prints are some of the most captivating works produced by the artist in his lifetime, capturing the key essentials of the artist’s style. In the following article, we will examine some of these significant print works and further explore their visual and cultural meaning.

1. The Frugal Repast (1904) (etching)

As mentioned, Le Repas Frugal is one of Picasso’s most valued works. Produced when the artist was only 23, the print originates from the earliest stages of the artist’s creative career and provides valuable insight into Picasso’s innate technical abilities. The work is intricately constructed, depicting a couple hunched over a sparsely covered table, their faces gaunt with hunger and intense melancholy. The work contains some traces of realistic still life paintings in the composition of the table’s elements, though Picasso distorts the couple’s physical features with stretched-out limbs and bone-thin fingers to create a heightened surreal, eerie feeling to the print.  

A part of the iconic ‘Saltimbanque Suite’, Las Repas Frugal emerged as a result of Picasso’s interest in the Saltimbanque, street performers that roamed the streets of Paris. Unlike some of Picasso’s more vibrant and energetic future prints, this series marked Picasso’s foray into the melancholic. The couple’s gazes are unfocused and distant, as if pondering a wretched and imminent future. Yet, the emotional atmosphere is lightened somewhat by the couple’s tender embrace: the man’s fingers resting lightly on the woman’s arm, the woman’s almost imperceptible smile. While the Saltimbanque Suite was ever only meant to sustain the living of the starving young artist, it remains a testament to Picasso’s ability to weave nuanced and complex emotional landscapes.

2. Faun Unveiling a Woman (1936) (sugar-lift aquatint)

The last print in the famous Vollard Suite, Picasso based the print directly on Rembrandt’s depiction of Jupiter and Antiope, a Greco-Roman fable describing the god Jupiter transforming into a faun and visiting the beautiful Antiope in her chambers. Picasso’s iteration of the well-trodden myth teeters between erotic and eerie, depicting Jupiter’s intense voyeuristic gaze and stiffly outstretched arm toward Antiope’s tender, vulnerable body. One can’t help but be irresistably drawn toward this moonlit moment, sensing as though something sinister is about to happen.

Gazing upon a sleeping body was a dominant theme in Picasso’s Vollard Suite, and he depicted various characters -- a pensive young boy, a faun and another woman -- staring at another sleeping person, usually a woman. There’s certainly a sexual element to Picasso’s obsession, consistent with his lifelong fixation with human sexuality and eroticism. Simultaneously, Picasso could also be examining his own creative processes, shedding light on his relationships with his various muses/lovers throughout his life.

3. Figure with Striped Bodice (1949) (Lithography)

Lithography was one of Picasso’s main obsessions, and he produced some 400 lithographs during the artist’s lifetime. Picasso had famously developed the propensity for using his fingers to make marks, as opposed to using a lithography crayon or a brush, which allowed him to work much more quickly and spontaneously. His lithography works thus take on a rough, unpolished quality, allowing us to catch glimpses into the inner workings of Picasso’s creative process.  

This striking lithography depicts Picasso’s lover Francois Gillot and the mother of two of his children, and breaks the artist’s muse into abstract, almost alien shapes and colours. Picasso’s work evidences clear Egyptian and African aesthetic influences, presenting a mask-like, intricately patterned interpretation of a human face. Like many artists of his time, Picasso was deeply invested in so-called ‘Primitivism’, in which he deliberately appropriated visual conventions from African and other non-European visual cultures such as geometric facial features and stylised, brightly patterned bodies.

4. Portrait of a Young Woman, After Cranach the Younger (1958) (Linocut)

A relatively minor part of his overall collection (about 150 pieces), Picasso had only restarted his linocut practice in 1951 after a 12 year hiatus and erupted into a burst of creative activity between 1958 and 1963. During this time, Picasso produced plenty of posters, such as this unique Pacchanale avec Chevreau et Spectateur which had been inspired by the artist’s new home in the south of France. Among his linocuts, Portrait de jeune fille, d'après Cranach le jeune is undeniably the most sought-after, selling at auction for half a million pounds in 2023. 

Picasso was inspired by a postcard sent to him by his dealer Daniel Henry Kahnweiler, which had contained a copy of Cranach the Younger’s Portrait of a Woman from the Vienna-based Kunsthistorisches Museum. Featuring Picasso’s signature technique of reducing and abstracting facial features, a hallmark of his Cubist practice, his iteration of this portrait is striking for its vibrant yellow and white hues, and its intricate textile patterns.

5. Ecce homo, after Rembrandt (1970) (etching)

Toward the end of his life, Picasso returned to etchings with his final ‘156 Suite’. Among the 153 prints produced was Ecce homo, inspired by Rembrandt’s The Hundred Guilder Print which depicts a scene from the Gospel of St. Matthew where Pontius Pilates presents to Jesus to the crowd that had condemned him. Picasso reframes the dramatic event as theatrical reflection of his own life, casting himself as the main actor at various stages of his life: as a baby, an elderly man and a young man. Picasso also populated the audience with his friends and lovers, representing their position relative to his own growth and trajectory. At nearly 90, Picasso’s final prints reveal the process by which the elderly artist ruminated on the experiences of his life and his final legacy.  

Ultimately, Picasso’s print collection is equally significant to any of his paintings, providing valuable insight into his creative evolution across 70 years of print production. Unlike his paintings, however, his prints provide a more accessible and democratic way for avid fans to lay claim to Picasso’s legacy. With over 2000 pieces available across the world, Picasso’s prints are markedly less expensive than his rare million-dollar paintings, costing anything from a few hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands. Despite their relatively lowered price, every piece is a tangible remnant of Picasso’s creative legacy and is therefore still tremendously valuable, be it in terms of cultural value or potential for capital appreciation. As such, Picasso’s prints remain popular options not just for fans of Picasso’s work but savvy collectors looking for low-entry, high-value art investments. 

Published on June 4, 2024
Yu Ke Dong

Ke Dong is a seasoned art writer and current double major in English Literature and Art History at NTU. Having worked with esteemed art institutions in Singapore, Ke Dong now regularly contributes his keen research skills, adept writing abilities and passion for art to the Art Works discourse.


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