Picasso, son oeuvre, et son Public
Picasso, son oeuvre, et son Public (Bloch 1481)

1968 (March, Mougins)

Etching printed on Rives wove
From the Suite 347 (Plate 1), edition of 50 of the seventh (final) state 
Signed by the artist in pencil, lower right
Numbered 37/50 in pencil, lower left
Printed by Crommelynck, 1968-69
Published by Galerie Louise Leiris, Paris, 1969
Image: 15 1/2 x 22 1/4 inches
Sheet: 22 1/2 x 28 inches
Framed: 31 3/4 x 28 1/4 inches
(Bloch 1481) (Baer 1496.VII.B.b)

“Of course, one never knows what's going to come out, but as soon as the drawing gets underway, a story or an idea is born, and that's it… I spend hour after hour while I draw, observing my creatures and thinking about the mad things they're up to. Basically, it's my way of writing fiction.”i

 

With an image of a circus ring, Picasso literally sets the stage for his last and most important series of prints, the Suite 347. Picasso began work on this impressive body of prints in the spring of 1968 at the age of eighty-seven and quickly became consumed with the project—he worked on it exclusively for a period of almost seven months, often creating several plates in a day. Named literally for the number of etchings in the suite, it is an impressive body of work that demonstrates the artist’s continued vitality, intellectual curiosity, humor, and capacity for invention. The prints follow a loosely-connected narrative that allegorizes the artist’s life with humor and wit. It portrays a large cast of characters, including himself, his family, his friends, his loves, the artists he admired, and literary and historical figures. The images are characterized by a freedom of expression in both subject and technique—many of them are overtly sexual or highly fantastical (or both), and the artist employed unusual materials, such as gasoline, to obtain original effects.

 

Picasso enjoyed making images that challenged his audience and could be interpreted in a number of ways. This is apparent in the 347 etchings—he plays endlessly with the cast of characters, juxtaposing them in somewhat illogical configurations. In this image, Picasso shows himself as a diminutive figure in profile watching a woman performing on horseback. (She resembles his wife at the time, Jacqueline.) Behind her is a throng of spectators. To the artist’s left is a mysterious figure with an unusual hat who has the face of Jean Cocteau, a fellow artist and friend who had died four and half years prior. At the far right is a strongman who looms over a reclining nude in the center foreground. The image is certainly autobiographical—but the figures are new to us, as they do not appear elsewhere in Picasso’s art, and we are left to surmise what Picasso might have imagined as he composed the plate. Whatever his intention, the importance this image held for him is indicated by the care he put into it. (Though most of the etchings for the Suite 347 were done quickly, he spent almost a week refining this particular plate.) One thing is clear: the spry artist who looks down upon the scene with a satisfied grin seems to be in the process of surveying the scene, and by extension, his life. This is enough for the viewer to be aware that he is being lead on a journey.

 

Brigitte Baer, the primary scholar of Picasso’s prints, feels this is the masterwork of the Suite and compares it to his history-making 1935 etching Minotauromachie, which was also an autobiographical image of a highly symbolic nature. She notes that the figures in Picasso, son oeuvre, et son public seem to represent the artist and his wife in various guises, and interprets the strongman as a symbolic figure who has replaced the sculptor and the Minotaur in the Suite Vollard (both of whom represent the artist).

 

Once again, through mirrored or duplicated identities, here in the eyes and the daydream of the reclining woman, the problem is posed of one’s proper identity and of one’s relationship with the other. Is it Jacqueline the wife, or Jacqueline as the bareback rider, majestic on her horse? Is it Picasso himself, or as a Cocteauesque prankster, or as a Minotaur which here is transformed (grandeur and decline) into a pathetic circus strong man with the face of the “sculptor?”ii

 

Though the Suite 347 originally received a somewhat lukewarm response, scholars have recently become more interested in these etchings due to their complex symbolism, emotional frankness, and Picasso’s experimental use of materials. They are now regarded as work of an exceptionally vital master artist in full command of his abilities who unflinchingly examines himself in old age, warts and all. It is truly an astonishing last hurrah.

 

 

i Picasso as quoted in Roberto Otero, Forever Picasso: An Intimate Look at his Last Years (New York: Abrams, 1974), 170.
ii Baer, Picasso the Printmaker: Graphics from the Marina Picasso Collection [Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 1983], 175.