The Norton Simon Museum presents States of Mind: Picasso Lithographs 1945–1960, a revelatory exhibition exploring Pablo Picasso’s prolific work in the medium of lithography. Drawing from the Norton Simon Museum’s holdings of more than 700 Picasso prints—among the deepest collections of its kind anywhere in the world—States of Mind traces the evolution of the artist’s individual compositions from the 1940s and 1950s through multiple states, subtle adjustments and radical revisions. The 86 prints on view, many presented for the first time in 40 years, give viewers a rare chance to encounter this groundbreaking body of work by one of history’s most celebrated artists.
By the end of the Second World War, Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973) had reached what he called “the moment… when the movement of my thought interests me more than the thought itself.” This new interest in “movement” found its most remarkable expression in Picasso’s practice as a printmaker. Whereas oil paintings inevitably covered their tracks, concealing the process of their making under layers of opaque color, prints—especially lithographs—promised to record their own development through sequential stages, charting the movement of their maker’s thoughts from state to state. Picasso could work up a design, print it (in a first state), rework it and print it again (in a second state), repeating the process two or 10 or 20 times to chart the metamorphoses of a particular compositional idea.
On Nov. 2, 1945, with France still under a provisional government and groceries still rationed in Paris, Picasso walked into the Mourlot Frères print shop in the rue de Chabrol. “He arrived as though he were going to battle,” the firm’s director, Fernand Mourlot, later recalled, and indeed the demands Picasso would place on Mourlot’s master printers were without precedent. He had produced only a few dozen lithographs in the 1910s and 1920s—all more or less conventional in their approach—but the designs he brought to Mourlot’s shop were far more daring, incorporating grattage, collage and mixed media. “How could anyone possibly print from that?” demanded Gaston Tutin, one of Mourlot’s master printers, calling the artist’s disregard for proper lithographic technique “a monstrosity.” But, cajoling his reluctant collaborators, Picasso swiftly and decisively transformed the practice of lithography, producing 185 plates over the next three years and more than 400 by the end of the 1960s.
The subjects of Picasso’s early lithographs are often ordinary: a dish of fruit, a cup of tea, a boy in a striped shirt. There are experiments with lithographic ink and doodles of animals. The face of a beautiful woman, one eyebrow slightly cocked, gazing calmly back at the observer, appears again and again. The young painter Françoise , Picasso’s companion from 1946 to 1953, provided the inspiration for many of these compositions; through two or four or 10 printed states, her features metamorphose past likeness into abstraction in a process the artist also applied to various other motifs. Perhaps the most famous example is that of The Bull, which treats a subject close to the Spanish painter’s heart. From a simple brush and ink drawing to a glowering behemoth, to a schematic portrayal reminiscent of a butcher’s chart, to a playful outline, concise as a cave painting, Picasso transformed this creature over 11 states from Dec. 5, 1945, to Jan. 17, 1946. As for several of the artist’s most iconic lithographs of the 1940s, the exhibition includes all the editioned states of The Bull as well as a unique working proof of an unnumbered state.
Picasso at the Norton Simon Museum
Over the course of his collecting career, Norton Simon purchased 885 works by Picasso, more than by any other artist except Goya. These comprised some 20 paintings in oil and pastel, nine bronzes, six drawings and 850 prints (some of which were sold at a later date). His largest single acquisition of Picasso artworks occurred in 1977 with the purchase of 228 lithographs, dated from the 1940s and 1950s and originating from the collection of Fernand Mourlot himself. The group included trial proofs (sometimes printed just once or twice), artist’s proofs (printed in private editions of 18, often years before the larger commercial editions of 50) and 168 final proofs marked Bon à tirer (“O.K. to print”) in Picasso’s brisk, confident hand. Opening up this rare trove, the exhibition presents 86 prints that chart Picasso’s discovery of lithography and his continuing reliance upon the medium to record the movement of his thoughts.
Picasso and Lithography
Unlike intaglio printmaking techniques like engraving and etching, lithography is essentially a planographic (flat) process. It relies on the repulsion of grease and water to transfer a hand-drawn image from a smooth surface (originally a piece of limestone) onto a sheet of paper. In its most rudimentary form, the lithograph requires an artist to draw or paint with a greasy crayon or greasy ink (the tusche) directly on the stone, which is then chemically fixed, wet, inked and printed, producing an exact, reversed copy of the tusche drawing. Since the development of transfer papers in the 19th century, an artist has been able to work up his or her design in the studio and send it off to the printer’s shop for chemical transfer, reversal and production. The result is an exactly reproducible image that captures all the tonal subtleties of even a pencil drawing, but requires no specialized printmaking skills on the artist’s part.
As a printmaker, Picasso was most closely associated with intaglio techniques, particularly etching and aquatint, but lithography presented him with a new challenge and a new set of tools. What may have interested him most about the process seems to have been its flexibility: tusche applied in a liquid wash one day might be scraped off the next, mimicking the effect of a wood engraving, a child’s drawing or a graffito. A paper cutout design, inked in various colors, might be printed on its own or layered with a crayon drawing, adding new dimension to each. A figure worked up in black on a white background could be incised, covered and drawn anew as a white figure on a black background. The possibilities were endless.
The exhibition concludes with Picasso’s monumental lithographic portraits of Roque—most often captured in profile, in paired states (one light, the other dark)—and with the Women of Algiers, represented not only by the complete lithographic output, but by a large, brightly-colored canvas, letter “I” in the series, a painted trace of thought in motion.
States of Mind is organized by Emily A. Beeny, associate curator at the Norton Simon Museum. In conjunction with the exhibition, the Museum is organizing an extensive series of related events that will be publicized later this year.