An extraordinary example of Picasso’s experimental virtuosity, this print demonstrates the artist’s alchemical ability to adapt anything he found to his art. It was created during a period of emotional turbulence in Picasso’s life: his relationship with the beautiful young artist Françoise Gilot (born 1921) had been deteriorating for some months when he left her and their children Claude and Paloma in their home in Vallauris for a trip to Paris in mid January 1953. According to the account of Fernand Mourlot—the master printer whose lithography workshop Picasso had frequented intensively during the late 1940s—on visiting the printing works, the artist noticed some zinc plates lying in a corner waiting to be polished out. On examining them he found one that he particularly liked—a screened photolithography that had been used to print the poster for an exhibition at the Tuileries Orangery in November 1948. The imprimerie experts deemed it to be ‘unusable’ and, delighted by the challenge this posed, Picasso carried it off to his studio on rue des Grands Augustins. The following day, January 18th, he brought it back transformed into his own image and ready to be proofed.i
The picture that Picasso modified was a photographic reproduction of a painting by the Lyons artist Victor Orsel (1795-1850) that had been included in the exhibition La peinture lyonnaise. Portrait de jeune italienne (Vittoria Caldoni) c.1825-6 (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyons) shows the head and bust of a young Italian woman wearing a rustic costume that includes a tight, high bodice, a crisply folded piece of white linen covering her head and a string of red beads around her neck. Using a wide brush, Picasso outline her face and costume with heavy black line, redirecting the gaze of the original subject, who looks over the viewer’s right shoulder, to the intense full-frontal stare that characterizes all his portraits of Françoise. While the perfect oval of her face was very close to that of Picasso’s willful and independent young mistress, the artist considerably enlarged Caldoni’s eyes—particularly that on the right—to conform with Gilot’s wide-eyed gaze. In the black background above her head, he engraved a flautist on one side and a curly-haired male dancer wearing a laurel wreath and playing the castanets on the other. Below the flautist, Picasso scratched an area of white, inserting a naked young woman flanked by another female figure who is only partially in view. The young woman is shown standing with her arms folded modestly across her breasts and her face in profile, her long straight nose anticipating that of Jacqueline Roque (1927-86), a young woman Picasso had met in summer 1952 at the Madoura pottery workshops in Vallauris where he was working with ceramics, who was destined to become his next and last great muse. Picasso’s manner of appropriating and reworking this lithographic zinc has its parallel in his activities at Madoura, where he would often pick up a pot or a vase rejected by the potter and transform it into a sculpture of his own.
The first state of L’Italienne was not editioned, but three days later, on January 21st, Picasso reworked the zinc plate, enhancing some of his earlier brush strokes and engraving additional lines. In this second state the composition has been extended into the right margin of the paper, allowing the artist substantially to develop the male figure playing castanets, bringing him from the background right into the fore. The line of his body is extended down the page so that the central figure’s left arm doubles as his leg while his raised right arm moves forward over her headdress, the line of his torso following the side of her head and neck. If this character represents a younger version of the artist (as was often the case in Picasso’s prints), it is tempting to see him as stepping out in front of his current mistress in order perhaps to dance with a new contender for his hand—the young woman standing in the wings whose gaze meets his across the centre of the page, over the forward stare of its main protagonist. Playing the diaule or double-flute, the piper in the second state has become the horned and bearded satyr who features in much of Picasso’s ceramic work of this period; his gaze also has been redirected to the composition’s central point. Behind him, the head and upper chest of a second young man have appeared in the narrow margin of black—possibly representing another version of the artist as a young man, the male counter to the young woman standing below. The highly personal narrative being alluded to in this print perhaps made it too risky to release in an edition straight away and it was put on one side until 1955 when it was printed in an edition of fifty numbered and signed proofs. In the event, Françoise left the artist in autumn 1953, taking the children with her. Jacqueline’s features—especially her classical profile—began to appear regularly in Picasso’s drawings the following January; they began living together later that year, remaining together for the rest of his life.
This impression from the edition of fifty is numbered 13/50 at the lower left and signed at the lower right in pencil. It was printed on Arches and has an Arches watermark.
i Fernand Mourlot, Picasso Lithographs, Boston: Boston Book and Art Publisher, 1970, p.201.