From art we want both quality and qualities. Quality depends on the superior harmony of parts; it results from the artist’s overcoming of the personal, from his absorption in the disinterested (but also fluid) laws of a medium. Qualities are precisely personal; they’re the products of a particular intelligence and sensibility as it makes its unique little response to the blaze of everyday life. Art is propelled forward by a healthy rivalry between the two Q’s.
Modern art has been said to favor quality over qualities; as a theory, “modernism” certainly does. And yet Picasso, who died thirteen years ago, now engages us especially through the proliferation of his qualities. One had always known of the ponderous neoclassical figure style of the early 1920s; of the swirly, psychedelic-colored Marie-Thérèses of the early 1930s. But how many of us, before the Museum of Modern Art retrospective in 1980 and the opening of the Musée Picasso in 1985, had been prepared for the fullness of these periods, for their elaboration of qualities? If 1900-1925 has been, for two generations, the quarter century of Picasso’s career that seems most essential, we may now feel that 1915-1940—from Synthetic Cubism to Dora Maar—is the quarter century we want to look at the most. It’s the period when the onslaught of qualities put quality on the defensive.
Picasso’s sketchbooks have only just come into public view, and they reveal the artist as (if possible) more than ever an inventor of new qualities. At the magnificent show of sketchbooks mounted by the Pace Gallery in New York this past summer (it’s now on tour), one could feel humbled by the extraordinary bulk of the material. The plenitude of the sketchbooks—there are, apparently, a hundred and seventy-five separate ones—introduces into the already overfull career a whole new dimension. The Pace Gallery gave the show a clever title: “Je suis le cahier,” a phrase which is inscribed on the cover of a notebook from 1906-07. But a cleverer title would have been: “Just when you thought you’d seen all of Picasso: The Sketchbooks.” In time, one’s initial unease gave way to something like relief: these crowded notebooks, with their many different formats, are a kind of confession, a testament to the plain hard work of the artist’s life—to the trial and error, the false starts, the repetitions. The Picasso of the sketchbooks is rather like the dancer in the practice studio. He’s holding back a bit, blocking things in, rather than going full out. The drawings here occasionally achieve the grandeur that comes with taking the ultimate risk; they more often have the interest born of a willingness to make mistakes, to try something different ways.
A sketchbook seems to have been, for Picasso, the plotting-out of a world. The ones from around 1900 describe a crowded scene based in equal parts on direct observation and the art of Steinlen and Toulouse-Lautrec. The figures take nervous, fin-de-siècle poses, which are softened by Picasso’s black crayon lines. These singers, dancers, waiters, and bohemians live in a hazy atmosphere composed of nights in cheap cabarets and mornings in rooms where the wallpaper has probably gone gray with neglect. A half-decade later, in the Saltimbanques Sketchbook of 1905, the light has cleared and, in a circus world bounded by reminiscences of Puvis de Chavannes, slender young men look off into the distance, indifferent to the surrounding company of proper young girls, fat jesters, and carousing nudes. In the Demoiselles Sketchbook of 1907, civilization has backtracked to a forest of anonymous African goddesses, each as rigid and symmetrical as a caryatid, all inscrutable in their insistent presentation of buttock and breast, in their ritualistic raising and lowering of huge arms. And on and on: magic shows where cardboard clowns do disappearing acts amidst a polka-dot decor; an Olympus of blank-eyed Grecian goddesses and forty-pound babies; surreal beach-party shenanigans; wartime psycho-hysteria; pulchritudinous bobby-soxers; and, finally, in the 1960s, the somewhat impersonal couplings of pornographic bedroom farce.
Though the sketchbooks contain great individual sheets, their mood is essentially discursive, even a bit unfocused. For Picasso a sketchbook was a kind of getting-acquaint-ed session, a relaxed walk across a newly discovered landscape. One might have expected the sketchbooks to underline the commonly held idea of the post-Cubist Picasso as an idea-man whose natural medium was the drawing. (As the story goes, Picasso hardly cared what colors he used when he painted.) In fact, the sketchbooks give the opposite impression; they show how Picasso’s ideas cry out for the consummation of oil paint. Nowhere at Pace was this so clear as in a 1922 drawing of an enormous, dewy-eyed mother and her equally massive boy-child. This dazzlingly virtuosic confection of spun silver tones is awash in neo-classic nostalgia—for Raphael, for Proudhon. The monumental scale and tree-like limbs of the figures (they swallow up the page) aren’t supported by the technique; the draftsmanship is brilliant, but in a nineteenth-century academic sort of way. One misses the weight of oil paint, the density of surface which gives to the stylistically related Large Bather in the Guillaume Collection (c. 1921-22) and the Pipers of Pan in the Musée Picasso (1923) their peculiar modern force. At Pace the modesty of the sketches, with their almost nervous pursuit of contradictory effects, brought the profundity of the oils into ever higher relief.
Last winter, a sketchbook Picasso took with him to the beach at Dinard in Brittany in 1928 was the subject of a separate exhibition at William Beadleston Fine Art. The Beadleston show (which passed without receiving the attention it deserved) included all the sheets from the Dinard album (it has been disbound) as well as related paintings and sculptures, and gave an in-depth view of the sketcher at work. At Beadleston one saw a long, unwinding sequence of pages—a cinematographic effect. In one series of six drawings a woman tossing a ball is taken through a steeplechase of kaleidoscope variations; her body keeps resolving into new configurations, ever more surprising. This wild erotic fantasy is carried out with cold mathematical logic, as if Picasso were seeing exactly how many transformations he could wreak on a single female theme. It was particularly interesting at Beadleston to see a 1928-29 wire sculpture (which Picasso suggested as a monument to Apollinaire) surrounded by a series of preparatory drawings from the sketchbook. These drawings are meditations on the third dimension; they aren’t just flat things, but mappings of alternate courses through space, of routes going in various directions. Thoughts about form-in-space appear all through the sketchbooks: from the six separate studies which circle around the same seated boy in the Saltimbanques book of 1905 to the series of views of a woman’s head, with the nose twisted every which way, in a 1964 book that happened to be the final work included in the Pace show. At Beadleston the suggestiveness of the sketchbooks—of, for example, a series of figure-like abstractions constructed of smooth, bone- and stone-shaped volumes— spilled over into the full-bodied emotion of the sculptures and paintings. Against the modernist idea of the artist as absorbed with the things directly in front of him, the sketchbooks offer invention.
Taken one by one, the books have about them an intimacy we rarely associate with the dimensions of Picasso’s career. There are tiny notebooks: one from 1924 contains little still lifes in pencil and pastel that can only be described as adorable. All through the Pace show one was conscious of the pleasure to be derived from different formats and different types of paper. These sketchbooks bring to mind the sensuousness that an artist experiences when he’s in the art-supply store, or when he sits down before the table well stocked with fine materials, ready to get to work. The great pile of books—nearly three-quarters of a century worth—reveal Picasso as before all else a dedicated craftsman. This dedication is the result of a training in certain methods and a knowledge of the proper use of materials. Picasso apparently takes a certain pleasure in living within the loose boundaries of an ancient system of law. The sketchbooks convey a comfortableness that grows out of loyalty, fondness, habit.
The Picasso of the sketchbooks can at times be a bit stuffy, overly preoccupied with showing off a command of the tools of the trade. But hubris is understandable in the complete professional who carries a heavy weight of obligation. Despite what’s often been said about the running down of Picasso’s energy in the later decades of a long life, the sketchbooks show him to have been workmanlike to the end. Indeed, he may at times have failed not through an excess of casualness, but through an excess of craft— by a too great insistence that everything be gotten down on paper, be made concrete. As much in i960 as in 1900, he’s the meticulous practitioner—trying the head a bit to the left, a bit to the right, from this angle, from that angle. The paintings he finished in a few hours, in a day, are the result of a long, apparently arduous preparation—the sketchbooks testify to this. Picasso’s vision was, it turns out, learned, acquired. Which makes it, really, all the more miraculous.
In 1955, Picasso had this to say about the sixteenth-century German painter Albrecht Altdorfer:
I’ve been copying Altdorfer. It’s really fine work. There’s everything there—a little leaf on the ground, one cracked brick different from the others. There’s a picture with a sort of little balcony—the closet, I call it. All the details are integrated. It’s beautiful. We lost all that, later on…. These things ought to be copied, as they were in the past, but I know no one would understand.
This isn’t the ordinary voice we associate with Picasso; it’s a side of his personality which the sketchbooks—long salted away, now an object of study and admiration— bring to the fore. That these books were hidden is interesting; they constitute a kind of professional secret, a mystery of the trade. Picasso had, after all, been the son of a teacher in a provincial art school; he’d worked from the casts; gone through (albeit very rapidly) the course of study of an academy; and done a large figure composition to signify the end of his apprenticeship—a deathbed scene, with a nun and a dedicated doctor, for whom his father had been the model. Afterwards Picasso took up the bohemian life, left for Paris, and helped to invent the language of a new age; but the hard labor of a fitfully successful father in the dim academic backwaters of fin-de-siècle Europe—this was a lesson in the trials of craft that Picasso never forgot.
- “Je suis le cahier” was on view at the Pace Gallery from May 2 to August 1. The show is currently at the Royal Academy of Art in London through November 15, and will travel thereafter to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (December 19 to January 25, 1987), the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco (February 14 to March 29), the Phoenix Art Museum (April 22 to June 3), and various other locations. The catalogue was published by Atlantic Monthly Press (360 pages, $6j) and includes a foreword by Claude Picasso as well as essays by Robert Rosenblum, Gert Schiff, Theodore Reff, E.A. Carmean, Rosalind Krauss, and Sam Hunter. Go back to the text.
- “Through the Eye of Picasso 1928-1934? was on display at William Beadleston Fine Art (60 East Ninety-first Street in New York) from October 31 to December 14, 1985. The catalogue was published by the gallery (125 pages, $25), with an introduction by John Richardson. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 5 Number 3, on page 58
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com