Three portraits of Françoise Gilot ignore you when you walk into the exhibition gallery at MOMA. Gilot’s gaze wanders elsewhere. The beholder’s presence seems to be absent from her universe.
These lithographs are from the sequence of at least 28 portraits of Gilot done in the 1948 – 1949 titled The Armchair Woman (Femme au Fauteuil). These three were done around the New Year and are dated December 30th, January 3rd and January 16th. They depict Françoise wearing an embroidered Polish jacket that Picasso brought her back from one of his Communist Party-related trips to Poland. The portrait done on December 30th is the most temperate of the three. The sleeves of the jacket mirror Gilot’s coiffure. The pattern on the sleeves stands out. She is lost in thought. The January 3rd version is less spontaneous, more structured. She put a veil over her hair. The armchair is firmly placed in space. Her posture is somewhat strained. She is thinking of something intensely. There’s a regal hieroglyphic quality to her pose. Is he seeing her through a lens of Velazquez? Two weeks later the incised lines almost completely dissipate in black. She practically wore away the pattern of her blouse. Her face lost the softness of the December portrait; she is in a state of a tense absorption now.
The exhibition labels tell us that we are seeing 3 out of 28 variations, but the show curator, Deborah Wye, is less specific in the catalogue entry accompanying the December portrait. She says that Picasso made “no fewer than twenty-eight variations of this composition.” This nuance becomes particularly important when we learn how these lithographs came into existence. Apparently, Picasso intended to make a color lithograph for which he developed 5 plates (one plate per color because the only way to print a color lithograph was to have a separate plate for each color). He then decided to let go the color, and walked five separate black-and-white roads, developing each plate as a concurrent composition which, sometimes, had several incarnations. Thus the portrait done on December 30th comes from the red plate; the portrait done on January 3rd – from the violet; and the portrait dated January 16th is not reproduced in the catalogue and this significant detail is not included in the label or MOMA online collection entry, but the numbering seems to suggest it was done from the same plate (red) as the December 30th portrait. Moreover, the December 30th litho is state VIII, the January 3rd - state V, and the January 16th – state XI. I assume that some states were intermediate and some Picasso saw as accomplished works, perhaps, nevertheless still continuing to develop those into new variations.
These variations interlock through absence, through what has been abandoned – color. The original lithograph-to-be was sliced into five layers. One can only guess what each color sheltered, but when having started to work on each plate as a separate color-less composition the artist was responding to what was there, not there, and elsewhere. Each time his “field of vision” was partial; he made his way in relation to what was present and absent, both in each state and in his subject.
The chamber-scale in feel Picasso: Themes and Variations which actually includes over 130 prints gives us a chance to catch a glimpse of what is not tangible or present. Picasso’s prints are remarkable not just as finished products, but also as footprints of his process. I wish the labels guided us through this process by providing all the fleshly details, for instance the colors of all the original plates for the above variations. I also wished for reproductions (in the catalogue) of all the variations’ states, including those that are not part of the MOMA collection and therefore not part of the exhibition. I wondered why these fine points and larger visual context were deemed negligible. The works were understood as illustrating the main themes, but the continuity of themes was not distinguished from variations as a mode of thinking. The framing of the show leads us to believe that the theme is pure subject: bulls, studio, Marie-Therese, Françoise, Jacqueline, Dora, or old masters. Those are all themes that pulsate through Picasso’s work and embrace single pieces, series and variations. But variations have additional ties.
For an artist, working on a piece essentially equals walking through a garden of forking paths, but it is a stroll in reverse since the multiple possibilities for each decision are to be pruned if the next step is to be taken. Variations are an attempt to walk several routes, parallel, intersecting or partially coinciding, through a single garden. Variations relate to each other also through a dominant formal idea that is subject to metamorphosis in all the works that constitute a set of variations. This is the Ariadne’s thread guiding an artist through a labyrinth of possibilities. Series are different from variations. They are tied by a common thread, but they do not share a printing plate or a common composition. The delicate, light for instance etchings that form a body of work on the subject of artist and model from the Vollard Suite, , string the line through space letting it roam freely in an attempt to define it, find balance and make sense of form-space relationship. They are separate pieces with a common formal preoccupation, in contrast to variations which are also”restrained” by a common reference point (a composition or a plate, for example) and constitute one work, with beginning, but without end. Variations as a mode of thinking and working heighten “if.” What if I take this turn? Finiteness, as it happens in a single work, never occurs in variations. In a way, each variant becomes a beginning. The last one is not the end, but just another “if” that still hangs in the air. The statement of Picasso’s printers at the Mourlot lithography shop cited by Wye, about his famous variations of 1945 The Bull that “he finished where, normally, he ought to have started” is a misunderstanding of the artist’s process. He did not finish. He started but never continued. Variations’ nature is indeterminacy.
In the catalogue introduction Wye mentions that a large number of Picasso’s prints were not published until after his death. His relative indifference to a finished product sheds light on the role prints played in Picasso’s creative process. Wye includes several of his statements on this subject. Picasso described his printmaking “as his own way of “writing fiction’”. He said: “The movement of my thought interests me more than the thought itself.” I find the first statement very intriguing. What did he mean by that? Very few of his print series or variations constitute a story; almost all are records of different states of things. Their continuity is a continuity of means not of narrative; it is an exploration of the parallel possibilities of a given language whether it is line, light, or structure. Even the seemingly narrative erotic series Raphael and the Fornarina from the Suite 347 which was recently on view at Metropolitan Art Museum Picasso show, forms a story that is primarily about the acts of looking, seeing, and metamorphosis rather than the actions of the characters. Variations are the most intense manifestation of this aspect of Picasso’s process. Picasso’s well-known saying about his take on painting quoted by Dore Ashton in her book Picasso on Art holds key to understanding his sustained engagement with printmaking and its consequences for his creative practice at large:
In the catalogue introduction Wye mentions that a large number of Picasso’s prints were not published until after his death. His relative indifference to a finished product sheds light on the role prints played in Picasso’s creative process. Wye includes several of his statements on this subject. Picasso described his printmaking “as his own way of “writing fiction’”. He said: “The movement of my thought interests me more than the thought itself.” I find the first statement very intriguing. What did he mean by that? Very few of his print series or variations constitute a story; almost all are records of different states of things. Their continuity is a continuity of means not of narrative; it is an exploration of the parallel possibilities of a given language whether it is line, light, or structure. Even the seemingly narrative erotic series Raphael and the Fornarina from the Suite 347 which was recently on view at Metropolitan Art Museum Picasso show, forms a story that is primarily about the acts of looking, seeing, and metamorphosis rather than the actions of the characters. Variations are the most intense manifestation of this aspect of Picasso’s process.
Picasso’s well-known saying about his take on painting quoted by Dore Ashton in her book Picasso on Art holds key to understanding his sustained engagement with printmaking and its consequences for his creative practice at large:
Paintings are but research and experiment.
I never do a painting as a work of art. All of them are researches. I search incessantly and there is a logical sequence in all this research. That is why I number them. It’s an experiment in time. I number them and date them. Maybe one day someone will be grateful…..
Printmaking with its option of returning to and reworking the plate and seeing the changed stage(s) next to the previous one(s) created an unparalleled research and experimentation laboratory. The final edition was less important than the movement of thought; in a way, it was almost a by-product.
On August 10, 1945 in his conversation with the photographer Brassaï and the Russian dancer Marina Berg, referred to but not looked at in depth by Wye, Picasso talked about his painting The Charnel House, then in progress, lamenting the impossibility of preserving the different states of a painting:
I am treading very gently. I don’t want to spoil the first freshness of my work. If it were possible, I would leave it as it is, while I began over and carried it to a more advanced state on another canvas. Then I would do the same thing with that one. There would never be a “finished” canvas, but just the different “states” of a single painting, which normally disappear in the course of work. To finish, to achieve – don’t those words actually have a double meaning? To terminate, to execute, but also to put to death, to give the coup de grâce?
In his later years Picasso seems to not only have overridden this incongruity and but gone much further in adopting the variations mode of thinking as the primary one in his creative practice at large. Think of his 1964 bodies of work Head of a Man and Artist (done on 29 copies of a reproduction of his painting) or his variations of 1954/55 on Delacroix’s Women of Algiers. These paintings are, of course, free from the shared printing plate, but are anchored by a common composition which is reinvented in each canvas (or sheet of paper in the case of the Artist).
In his print variations Picasso was subject to the force of a linear consecutive course because he was working from a single plate – the turns could be taken one after another though, of course, he could take a step back. In The Armchair Woman he broke the course of a single time flow into five concurrent interconnected sequences. But in his variations in painting, the single continuity was abandoned altogether. The works were done in succession, but each was started at an identical visual state, most often on a fresh canvas, and could have been commenced at any point. There was no common printing plate that exerted the gravity; and the common reference was not binding to a previous state in a way a return to a plate was. Each piece was a beginning and an end, or, rather, a pause. But together they formed a circular canon with no beginning or end. Only Picasso’s meticulous dating of each work placed these experiments in succession and traced the movement of his thought in time.
Variations occupied Picasso more and more as his own time was running out. What if he could slow it down? What if he could go back? What if he could start again? What if there was no end?
PICASSO: THEMES AND VARIATIONS is on view through August 30
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd St. (betweeen 6th and 5th Avenues)
New York, NY 10019
Hours: Wed – Mon 10:30 am – 5:30pm, Fri 10:30 am – 8:00 pm, closed Tue
Official Picasso site: www.picasso.fr
On-line Picasso project: https://picasso.shsu.edu/