One of the many things that sets Pablo Picasso apart from most artists is that, while he did associate with other painters, it was with poets and writers that he associated most often. When Picasso moves to Paris in 1901, he meets the poet Max Jacob and soon shares an apartment with him. Over the door, Picasso places a sign that reads, “The meeting place of poets.” Yale University Press’ Picasso and the Allure of Language, the catalogue to the exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery organized by Susan Greenberg Fisher, analyzes how Picasso’s visual art drew inspiration from the techniques and ideas of the poets and writers around him. Gertrude Stein (shown above writing at her desk in 1920, surrounded by walls covered with the works of Picasso) served not only as a patron of Picasso’s art, but also as a modernist template upon which he could elaborate. “In Stein’s prose, the rhythmic play of repetition and difference acts to undercut the separation of one thought from another,” Patricia Leighten writes of Stein’s influence on Picasso’s still lifes. “In Picasso’s painting the elements of pictorial illusionism serve not to delineate objects, but to confound our expectations, acting to merge objects with their surroundings.” If “a rose is a rose is a rose” for Stein, a table is a table is a table for Picasso—a commonplace from which he could spin out endless variation leaving the original far behind. Subtle, yet stunning insights such as these shed new light on Picasso the poet in pictures who seems deeper and more complex as his art becomes sparer and more simplified visually.
Pablo Picasso, Dice, Packet of Cigarettes, and Visiting-Card, Paris, early 1914. Painted and printed paper, graphite, and watercolor, 5 1/2 x 8 1/4 in. (14 x 21 cm). Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Collection, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. © 2008 Estate of Gertrude Stein. Used with permission of Estate of Gertrude Stein. © 2008 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
In the 1914 collage still life Dice, Packet of Cigarettes, and Visiting-Card (above), Picasso cites Stein by name by including one of her actual calling cards in the collage. This collage acts out in art the real-life relationship between Stein and Picasso, which followed the pattern of Picasso’s writerly relationships throughout his life. “Picasso took from [writers] what they had to offer,” Fisher explains in her introduction, “namely a deep knowledge of the mysteries of language. He kept in his personal archive all the letters, postcards, and essays they sent to him, as if the disposal of these items would break the bonds of friendship.” Stein’s calling card, which is drawn with a folder corner to indicate that it was delivered in person, serves as a talisman for the writer herself that Picasso clings to by inserting directly into his art as he had into his mind and heart. One of the pleasures of Picasso and the Allure of Language is that you get a full sense of the literary richness of Picasso’s works thanks to the deconstructive techniques more commonly applied to literature applied to art. The fact that these techniques as implemented by the writers in the catalogue work so well with Picasso’s art is itself a confirmation that Picasso’s art stems from the same source as much modernist literature. In this scheme, Stein’s modernism fuels the innovations that help Picasso develop Cubism. Picasso does not necessary copy or, worse, steal ideas from literature, but translates the ideas of literature into ideas conceivable in painting and sculpture.
Pablo Picasso, Dog and Cock, 1921. Oil on canvas, 61 x 30 1/8 in. (159.4 x 76.5 cm). Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Stephen Carlton Clark, b.a. 1903. © 2008 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Picasso’s relationships with poets fall into two periods: the early, Cubist days with Max Jacob and Guilaume Apollinaire and the later, between the wars days with Surrealist poets Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard, and Jean Cocteau. Peter Read’s Picasso and Apollinaire: The Persistence of Memory (my review here) argues for a continued influence of Apollinaire throughout Picasso’s life, like a phantom limb, which I’m sure this study’s writers would agree with. But they make a compelling case for a Surrealist Picasso, a label Picasso himself resisted. When Picasso gave up painting for a year from April 1935 through April 1936 for reasons still unclear, he turned to writing poetry, which Breton and his fellow Surrealists encouraged and even published. Fisher characterizes Picasso’s Surrealism as an “impulse” he couldn’t resist fully yet couldn’t embrace either because of his disagreement with their goals. Picasso’s Dog and Cock (above, from 1921) verges on the brink of Surrealism not only in its approach to the dog and cock, but also to how the newspaper comes into play. Fisher stresses how Picasso saw the newspaper as an example of the immediacy of the word in modern life. In addition to placing a newspaper on the table beneath a series of egg-like objects in Dog and Cock, Picasso arranges the entire painting in an almost columnar format. Plus, as Fisher points out, “[i]t may not be a coincidence that the overall shape of the cock resembles a large P, and the round shapes resemble the letters I, C, A, S, O.” Picasso thus “writes” his own name into the composition—a playful game with both language and paint. Picasso’s Surrealist “impulse” may come from this playful side, but his view of art as a serious force in the world for meaning prevented him from going all the way.
Pablo Picasso, pages 86–87 from Pierre Reverdy’s Le chant des morts (The Song of the Dead). Published by Tériade, Paris, 1948, Transfer lithograph, 17 x 13 in. (43.2 x 33 cm). Yale University Art Gallery, The Ernest C. Steefel Collection of Graphic Art, Gift of Ernest C. Steefel. © 2008 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
One of the most interesting parts of Picasso and the Allure of Language is the examination of Picasso’s book illustrations. As Irene Small explains, “Very few of Picasso’s images for illustrated books function as ‘illustrations’ in any ordinary sense of the word.” When Picasso illustrates Jacob’s Saint Matorel in 1911, Small writes, “rather than responding to Jacob’s existing text, Picasso’s etchings may have prompted a new text by the poet, as if to retroactively cement the tenuous relationship between text and image.” For Picasso and his authors, illustration was a two-way street of interplay and dialogue. In 1948, Picasso created abstract, almost calligraphic illustrations for Pierre Reverdy’s Le chant des morts (The Song of the Dead) (above). “The large and red abstractions are at once menacing and full of dignity against the black of Reverdy’s spaced-out handwriting,” Fisher writes, “and this baroque red and black against the white page, this blood and this mourning, are like the life of death, the very opposite of moribund.” Still reeling from the bloodshed of World War II, Picasso creates a new language of pure gesture in blood to accompany Reverdy’s attempt to put those feelings into words. Fisher cites Picasso’s study of illuminated medieval manuscripts as a source for these illustrations, which recapture and modernize the medieval view of death.
Pablo Picasso and André Derain, Four Still Lifes, Avignon, summer 1914. Oil on four ceramic tiles, 21 x 21 in. (53.3 x 53.3 cm). Yale University Art Gallery, The Philip L. Goodwin, b.a. 1907, Collection, Gift of James L. Goodwin, 1905, Henry Sage Goodwin, 1927, and Richmond L. Brown, 1907. © 2008 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
“Throughout a lifetime of friendships with writers,” Fisher writes in the introduction, “Pablo Picasso deeply understood language, both visual and verbal, and how it created meaning. But he was particularly sensitized to how language and textuality related to the ‘work’ that was closest to him: himself.” Picasso’s ultimate literary creation is the phenomenon of “Picasso” the character, the Proteus of modern art continually constructing and deconstructing personae while paradoxically maintaining a consistency in that very inconsistency. “My life has been the poem I would have writ,” Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “But I could not both live and utter it.” Similarly, the “poem” of Picasso’s life is his lifetime of visual art, which, except for one year devoted to poetry, consumed him entirely in the making. When Picasso and André Derain created Four Still Lifes in 1914, they painted on ceramic tiles and intended for the work to be laid flat, like a game board or writing desk. Thus, Picasso equates not only painting and writing, but also the idea of play. For Picasso, writing and painting and the ideas of writers and painters were all pieces in a great chess game played out in his mind. Picasso and the Allure of Language allows us to watch that game play out and challenges us to follow Picasso’s moves, which are always far, far ahead even today.
[Many thanks to Yale University Press for providing me with a review copy of Picasso and the Allure of Language and for the images from the exhibition.]