ART / 'The whole thing is about concealment': The Tate's Picasso exhibition closes tomorrow, but for one man and his picture, below, the show goes on. Iain Gale goes to Brighton to investigate the mysterious case of the fish, the horse and the fingerprint

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The Independent Culture
Sixty years ago next week, on 12 May 1934, Pablo Picasso painted a picture; a modest work in black ink and wash, only 38cm square. Within it, however, the artist drew hundreds of hidden images - clues to his troubled state of mind and tantalising glimpses of ideas later to be realised in his 1937 masterpiece Guernica.

That, at least, is one man's story. Mark Harris, painter, sometime antiques dealer and member of the Association of Art Historians, is part-owner of a picture which he has claimed, ever since he bought it in a Brighton house-clearance sale 15 years ago, is a lost masterpiece by Picasso.

Harris has become increasingly obsessed with securing a positive attribution and has recently completed a thesis justifying his claim on the basis of images hidden beneath the main motifs, concealed signatures, dates and even one of the artist's fingerprints. He has also sought opinions from authorities on Picasso, but claims to have been repeatedly rebuffed. He admits, 'I am troublesome,' but has come to see this rebuttal as symptomatic of a greater malaise in the art world.

'This picture is subversive,' he says. 'It undermines the power of a whole range of people considered to be experts.' Many of the people to whom he has mailed his thesis, including Picasso's biographer Pierre Daix, haven't responded. Of the replies a few have been encouraging. Most, though have given him a definite 'no'. Stylistically, the only works by Picasso to which the picture relates even slightly are a few small pen and ink drawings and some erotic etchings published in 1968. But Harris maintains this is deliberate: 'Picasso developed a special style for this drawing. It ties in with his concealing handwriting and imagery. The whole thing is about concealment.'

Harris believes that on primary reading the work is a self-portrait crucifixion with the artist flanked on the left by his mistress, Marie-Therese, and on the right by his wife, Olga. However, within the lines of these forms, he has traced a hidden language of symbols, pointing to a bull's head, a wolf and a skull and insisting that, elsewhere, the enlightened eye will detect a fish, a horse, a hand with a candle and even a baby's bottle. As he painstakingly demonstrates links with Norse, Greek and Egyptian myth and the Tarot, he is carried along on his own rhetoric. 'This is top secret. It's mind-blowing. Cubist, Surrealist, the whole thing. Most art-historians would give their right arm to find all this. It's the most important picture of the 20th century. I think Bill Clinton knows about it. It's dynamite.'

It's certainly fascinating, but does it get him any closer to a positive attribution? What connection can he make between these hidden devices and what we know of Picasso's life and art? Harris cites similar hidden motifs in Three Dancers at the Tate Gallery and the often remarked similarity between the curves of various Picasso nudes and the slopes of Mont St Victoire. But such ambiguities are artistic commonplace. His main chance will be to determine, by forensic means, that the fingerprint, signature and date on the picture belong to Picasso. If this is proved, it might be the date, 12.5.34, that has the greatest significance. In May 1934 Picasso's life was in turmoil, his marriage in crisis. Since the previous year his drawings had become increasingly violent, showing himself as a Minotaur and Marie-Therese as a dead torero. Olga was always in the background and from time to time the artist introduced the imagery of Guernica: the bull, the horse and the candle.

It was while researching similarities with Guernica that Harris realised he was not alone in finding hidden images in Picasso. For the past 16 years, the American writer Mel Becraft has been uncovering layers of visual messages within Guernica and has even privately published a book on his findings. As Harris says: 'It's a really weird book and you'll probably think he's mad. But he's got a mind like Picasso's own for concealment. Picasso never explained what was going on in his pictures. He was a keeper of secrets.'

It is at this stage that you begin to realise that what drives Harris and Becraft is their belief that they have been vouchsafed a glimpse of the 'mystery' of Picasso's creative genius. Indeed, Harris professes no interest in financial reward; rather a desire to debunk what he sees as a falsely mysticised world of art scholarship and a conviction that Picasso has bequeathed him the means to do so. 'It has to come out into the open,' he says. 'In 1911 Apollinaire suggested that an international bureau be established to authenticate works of art. Well now it's about time. Becraft and I are uncovering things that have been suppressed.'

Meanwhile, Harris continues to gather evidence of what he sees as a conspiracy. On 16 March at 6pm Meridian Television broadcast a report on his picture. Harris sees the editorial changes in an update, broadcast at 10.30pm, as subtle attempts to denigrate the work. More recently, he has been refused permission by the Design and Artists' Copyright Society, under instruction from Claude Picasso, to reproduce any work of art by the artist in future copies of his thesis. His only hope, he believes, is to arouse public interest by finding himself a publisher. 'My main concern is to be able to publish the arguments in full,' he says. 'I know I'll win hands down. What a marvellous thing to be able to offer the world.'

THE CASE FOR . . .

Eberhard Fisch. Picasso expert, author of 'Guernica' (1983) and numerous articles on the artist.

'The drawing is fascinating and there can be no doubt that it was executed by Picasso in 1934. Compare it to drawings and sketches in Picasso's sketchbook of that time. But I do not believe in all this sort of hidden imagery. Picasso absolutely stood above such puzzles and riddles. As much as I can see it has nothing to do with a crucifixion. Never would Picasso have portrayed himself in such a feeble way. There is no 'network of conspiracy'.'

Victor Pasmore. Artist.

'The drawing of the 'Crucifixion' could be one of the series which Picasso made on this theme, based on the famous painting by Grunewald, because its image is extremely sensitive and original.'

Francis Frascina. Art historian, researcher on Picasso for the Open University and producer of a film documentary on Guernica.

'It's possible that the drawing . . . is by Picasso, particularly as there is much circumstantial information in its favour.'

Eugenio Chicano. Director of the Fundacion Picasso, Malaga.

'I believe your drawing could belong to Picasso's hand. My reasons are mainly stylistic . . . Research is very hard, and we are now at too early a moment to elaborate a definitive answer.'

Mel Becraft. Author of 'Picasso's Guernica'.

'I am not a scholar. But I see much of what Harris has found. We are both intuitive. I believe it boils down to intuition, to locked minds. It's as simple as that.'

. . . and against

Claude Picasso. Son of the artist, born

in 1947.

'I don't think this work is by the hand of Pablo Picasso.'

David Douglas Duncan. Long-standing friend of the artist and the author of

'Picasso's Picassos' (1961).

'The photo gives so much information it raises for me, great doubts. So little of the work resembles Picasso's hand . . . not the man I saw at work for so long. The picture is no masterpiece by any art standard that I know.'

John Golding. Artist and co-curator of the Tate's Picasso exhibition.

'On purely visual stylistic grounds I

do not believe that the work can be by

Picasso . . . I simply do not see his hand

in the drawing or sense his presence behind it.'

Robert Rosenblum. Art historian and author.

'Looking at the slide . . . I would probably side with the view that, even were the fingerprint Picasso's, the drawing would not be. This might be another artist, like Bores, working under the shadow of the master.'

John Richardson. Leading Picasso expert and author of 'Picasso' (1991).

'Mr Harris has badgered me about this matter for years. He finally promised to show me the original but produced only a photograph. To judge by the photograph, the drawing has nothing whatsoever to do with Picasso. It is not a fake. It is by some other artist - probably British - and extremely feeble.'

Maya Picasso. Daughter of the artist, born in 1935.

'It does not seem to me to be by the hand of the artist in question.'

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