Repeatedly I am asked to explain how my painting evolved. To me there is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot live always in the present it must not be considered at all. The art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not an art of the past; perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was.[i]
Since receiving his art education as a teenage boy in the late 1800s, which typically involved studying and copying the masters of the past, Picasso looked for inspiration in the great works of art history throughout his entire career and repeatedly produced variations of iconic masterpieces. Picasso’s intention with these exercises was to step into an artistic dialogue with the artists he admired, and he never merely utilised their works as a source for citation.
Favourites in his personal musée imaginaire were Giotto, Tintoretto, El Greco, Velasquez, Delacroix (“That bastard – he’s really good!”[ii]), among others, and in a conversation with Daniel Henry Kahnweiler he once mentioned, that he appreciated the German old masters, and especially the members of the Cranach family, for their exceptional realism.
The present portrait of a young woman was inspired by a painting by Lucas Cranach the Younger, which was reproduced on a postcard Kahnweiler, his friend and art dealer, had sent to Picasso.
One of Picasso’s notable characteristics was his need to transform existing works of art, to compose “variations on a theme”, as it were. His point of departure was often simply a reproduction in a book; or even a postcard sent by myself, such as Cranach the Younger’s Portrait of a Woman (1564) in Vienna (collection Kunsthistorisches Museum), which became his first linocut in colour. Among other things, what struck him in particular about this painting was the way the woman’s shadow “rhymes” with the upper part of her body …. This need to transform was certainly an important characteristic of Picasso’s genius.[iii]
In the present print Picasso used the formal structure of Cranach’s oil painting as a basis for his own creation, applying a different technique and style. In typical Cubist manner he merged frontal and profile views of the young court lady’s features into one face and transformed Cranach’s rather stiff and formal portrait into a symphony of shapes, patterns, lines and colours. The result is an image of extraordinary vibrancy and luminosity, which is without doubt the most outstanding among Picasso’s works in linocut technique.
In 1958, at age 78, Picasso and his young lover and later wife Jacqueline Roque had moved away from Paris to settle in Southern France, where the couple resided alternately at the Chateau de Vauvenargues near Aix-en–Provenance and in the Villa la Californie in Cannes.
Although etching and lithography had always played a major part in Picasso’s oeuvre, it was not until that year that he seriously explored linocut as a printing technique for the first time. Through his move to the South the artist had no longer easy access to the printing studios of the French capital, which usually proofed and returned his etching plates within a few hours. Now this process took several days. Picasso, who worked fast and furiously, had little patience for such delays in his creative process.
A few years earlier, in 1952, the artist had already produced several simple posters in the linoleum cut method for an exhibition of the potters of Villauris, a village near Cannes, however, with his paraphrase of Cranach’s portrait Picasso finally took the medium to its full potential. The present work is Picasso’ first multi-coloured linocut print and required the cutting five different colour blocks (yellow, red, green, blue and black), which had to be registered correctly – a complicated and laborious process. Since Picasso liked to work efficiently, the artist later adapted another linocut procedure, the so-called ‘reduction method’, which was his own invention, in which he printed the image from only one block instead of using separate blocks for each colour. The linoleum block was cut and printed in the lightest colour first and then worked on further and successively printed in darker shades. Fascinated by the possibilities of this medium Picasso produced about 150 prints in the linocut method between 1958 and 1963 – a relatively small amount in his total output as a printmaker of approximately 2000 images.
The present print is one of several artist’s proofs, that were produced aside from the edition of fifty. It is signed in red pencil and dedicate dedicated in orange and blue pencil ‘pour Laug(u)ier [t]on ami’. The latter can most likely be identified as Henry Laugier (1888-1973), a French scholar who was a friend of Picasso and prolific collector of his work
[i] D. Ashton, Picasso on Art: A Selection of Views, London 1972, p.4
[ii] F. Gilot and C. Lake, Life with Picasso, Hammondsworth 1966, p.201
[iii] Daniel Henry Kahnweiler, Inroduction: A Free Man, in: Roland Penroseand John Golding.Picasso in Retrospect. New York, 1973, p.8-9