EXHIBITIONS: Picasso steals the show again

Printmaking is usually seen as a secondary artistic activity, but Picasso and his Parisian contemporaries made powerful and innovative use of it
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The Independent Culture
The British Museum is not known for exhibitions of modern art, but every now and then it hits the mark. "Printmaking in Paris: Picasso and his Contemporaries" is an excellent introduction to the subject, filled with beautiful things and nicely displayed in a gallery that's a lot quieter than other rooms in an increasingly noisy museum. Some 50 artists take us through the story of French graphic art from the turn of the century to the 1960s. Here's an overall view of printmaking activity in those years, though the display is dominated by one person, Picasso.

As so often, he makes the occasion his own. When you put Picasso in a mixed show he immediately becomes the emperor and other artists look like his subjects. All in all, Matisse was the greater painter. For invention and sheer force of personality, however, Picasso outstrips his old rival. This is particularly evident in printmaking, for at least two reasons. First, one doesn't have to worry about the weak part of Picasso's art, his use of colour. Secondly, a general characteristic of Picasso's drawing is that it has the air of performance. Whether he is grave or humorous, we seem to be the witnesses of a feat. Printmaking reinforces this impression. And even the technicians and master printers with whom he worked - men who always have a quite unsubservient attitude to great artists - were astonished by Picasso's facility on the stone or the metal plate or whatever he was using.

New techniques or reinventions of old techniques flowed from him. Outstanding in so many respects, Picasso was also a magical artisan. It's reasonable to say that some of his genius was in his fingers. The only craft he didn't really like was carving with a chisel. All other artisanal practice came to Picasso immediately, and he liked to make things in the company of other people who worked with their hands; so the atmosphere of a printmaking studio was always congenial to him.

I wonder if he was the more inclined to frequent such workshops when he was having trouble with women. They were mannish places. Printing studios wanted the most delicate results from their labourers but the achievement of such effects was accompanied by masculine banter. There's only one woman in this show, Marie Laurencin, who was Picasso's follower in both social and artistic ways.

Anyway, one reason why Picasso leads the exhibition is that he always creates drama from masculine/feminine subjects. Matisse doesn't do this. He explores his women as though he were rediscovering himself in a foreign land. When Matisse used lithography in the 1920s, the prints resemble his most meditative drawings in soft pencil. And his model took the lead. In, for instance, Nude with Blue Cushion, for which a local girl in Nice posed, the artist let her find her own way of sitting.

Then, as he recorded, "I became a slave of that pose." Picasso never took this attitude to the women he drew, unless they were asleep. He didn't have Matisse's need for a model to be herself. The printed portraits of women in his life, Dora Maar, Francoise Gilot and his second wife, Jacqueline, all go a little way towards caricature. They also remind one of puppetry, and we know that the manufacture of puppets was one of Picasso's artisanal skills.

The BM's exhibition is in 10 sections, a helpful framework that makes historical sense out of individual and occasionally eccentric motives.

I was inclined to like the cases given to "The Woodcut from Fauvism to the First World War", just because woodcuts happen to appeal to me. However, there's a sort of official coarseness in the prints by Raoul Dufy, Andre Derain and Albert Marquet, no doubt because prostitution is such a favoured subject. Something puzzles me here. Why was it that woodcuts by numerous English women artists reached such a high standard in the earlier part of this century, while there is no equivalent in France or anywhere else? Was that because woodcutting is easier to do in your home, so you didn't have to go to a studio where there were a lot of chaps making jokes at your expense?

The exhibition catalogue, mainly written by the BM's Stephen Coppel, contains much useful information but is poorly illustrated and avoids all general questions. The success of printmaking in Paris is not explained. There must have been commercial reasons for the popularity of graphic work. Graphics no doubt helped to make a bridge between the avant-garde and the world at large, especially since printmaking was suited to book illustrations and to posters. The role of the poster is just one topic Coppel might have examined, especially when his show comes close to political matters. It's obvious that posters are more effective than book illustrations when major social events are involved. Picasso's The Dream and Lie of Franco, which is scaled to the size of a book, is to me exceptionally disappointing - one emperor in a quarrel with another, as though the suffering classes did not exist.

Printmaking is usually regarded as a secondary artistic activity. But in Paris it sometimes set the path. Picasso's Guernica, for instance, which is not a painterly painting, was influenced by printmaking and perhaps by poster design. The British Museum exhibition has a section called "Political Prints from the Spanish Civil War", and there it's good to see Joan Mir's colour stencil Aidez l'Espagne of 1937. In that year it was sold for just one franc. Socially speaking, here's a print which is essentially a poster. Mir's forceful image should have been at least four times bigger than its real, smallish size, and should have been pasted up all over the place. That might have had more effect than a few francs garnered from modern art connoisseurs.

While Guernica anticipated the scale of the post-war advertising poster, Mir's political print kept to the size of a book. That's what most prints do, especially when there's an understanding between artists and poets. The illustration of verse is another theme of this exhibition. The French did it very well, with lots of images that are both bold and pretty. These images are, however, keyed to the size of a letterpress fount and are meant to be studied from about the same distance as a book.

I write this not as a criticism, just as an observation. French printmaking is often at its best when an artist worked with a sensitive book publisher. We don't have the same tradition in Britain. The book that comes with this show shocked me. It's so ugly. French modern artists made publishers more aesthetic. And now they are celebrated in a book that comes from the British Museum Design Office and is so badly designed that it ought to be withdrawn.

! `Printmaking in Paris: Picasso and his Contemporaries': British Museum, WC1 (0171 580 1788), to 14 Sept.