What Picasso Saw

A huge archive of photographs by Picasso, which has been unearthed in Paris, transforms our understanding of the way he worked.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
PABLO PICASSO was famously prolific. Quite how prolific, though, is only now coming to light. After exhibitions and books on his ceramics and collages, there is to be a show and a book dedicated to his photographs. The book's author, Anne Baldassari, warns that it could easily be followed by an anthology of his poetry - at one point, Picasso temporarily abandoned painting in order to pursue "the literary therapy" of verse-writing.

Anne Baldassari has spent the past five years as curator at the Musee Picasso in Paris. Soon after taking up her post she learnt that, somewhere in the vaults of the Musee, there were "maybe a couple of thousand photographs" taken or collected by Picasso. She knew Picasso was an inveterate hoarder who guarded everything for posterity, but she was not prepared for what she would eventually uncover. More than 17,000 images were found, and these were just from Picasso's own collection. Even more archives, yet to be catalogued, have been donated to the museum.

The photographs are cause for a radical re-evaluation of the way in which Picasso worked. We can now see that some of his Cubist paintings, such as the Demoiselles d'Avignon, were based on postcards from French-speaking Africa, others on photographs manipulated by Picasso. The pictures he took himself were the basis for a range of artistic experiments - he engraved directly on to glass photographic plates and played with light patterns by cutting up and perforating film. He continued to take photographs at least until the late Sixties, when he was producing composite photo images and knife engravings cut directly into the positive slide.

He began taking pictures in the early years of the century. "Picasso in 1909 was in Spain," recalled Gertrude Stein in 1938, "and he brought back with him some landscapes which were, certainly were, the begin- ning of Cubism. Picasso had by chance taken some photographs of the village that he had painted and it always amused me when everyone protested against the fantasy of the pictures to make them look at the photographs which made them see that the pictures were almost exactly like the photographs."

In Paris in the Thirties, Picasso was familiar with several experimental photographers, many of whom combined photography and painting. Dora Maar, who became his girlfriend in 1936, was established in the new street photography as practised by Bill Brandt and Henri Cartier- Bresson, but also engaged in her own brand of Surrealist fantasy, much of it based on her dreams and her nightmares. She created vertiginous images of spirals and vortices, often producing grotesques by retouching the distorted perspectives with a calligraphy pen or paintbrush. Picasso obsessively took photographs of her, as well as in collaboration with her.

Picasso often adapted the techniques of his friends and fellow artists. Among them were Brassai, who photographed graffiti and drew graffiti over his photographs; Gjon Mili, who used the new stroboscopic electronic flash lamp to practise "drawing with light", dividing a second's action into thousands of individual images; and Man Ray, who used his model and fellow photographer Lee Miller to create solarised outlines, "Rayographs" and "Rayograms" (more widely known as photograms).

In 1937, Man Ray published his deliberately provocative La Photographie n'est pas l'Art, 12 exquisite photos which emphatically contradicted the title. In the same year, the Cahiers d'Art published his essay "Picasso, photographe", which culminated in: "A man comes and puts himself in the place of the eye, with all the risks this gesture involves. Haven't you seen a living camera?"

In the phenomenal archive that Anne Baldassari has worked so hard to unearth are thousands of early cartes-de-visite; postcards of tourist resorts; crates of photogravures and 400 photograms; portraits of and by friends and anonymous studio shots; and slides Picasso cut or painted over. Picasso himself explained the value of this hoard: "It's not enough to know the works by an artist, you also have to know when he did them, why, how, under what circumstances. Some day there'll be a science ... that deals with human creativity ... I often think of this knowledge, and I want to leave as complete a record as possible for posterity."

Anne Baldassari describes the photographs both as a series of freeze frames that document Picasso's creative process, and as prototypes which he used to test new visual approaches. The pictures on the following pages not only testify to the relationship between Picasso's painting and photography, but also to his fascination with photography for its own sake: he uses it to look at the world and at himself, and he uses it to play. As Anne Baldassari says, photography "is the precursor of every stage of his work - it's the roots of his work. It is something subliminal."

'Picasso and Photography' by Anne Baldassari is published by Flammarion at pounds 40. It can be ordered from Thames & Hudson by telephoning 01252 541 602. An exhibition of the same name opens at the Barbican, London EC2, on 29 January and runs to 28 March (enquiries 0171 382 7105)

Comments