Picasso, we all know, was the artist of the century. A dynamic, enigmatic giant of a painter of unquestionable originality and influence. Last year his sculptural work also underwent convincing reappraisal at the Tate Gallery. But what has been said of his skill as a print-maker? Certainly the Vollard suite of the 1930s - with its classical arcadias and unambiguous minotaurs - has been praised as a major achievement. What, though, of his two late series of prints? Suite 347 and Suite 156, respectively dated 1968 and 1970, have traditionally been the poor relation of Picasso's oeuvre. Yet, looking at them reproduced (in Picasso: Inside the Image, recently published by Thames & Hudson, £16.95), one feels that herein may lie the elusive essence of the master's art.
In these two series, made by Picasso when he was in his early eighties, he reviews his life and work. Generally condemned as the frustrated attempts of a sad, impotent old man to invoke memories of a lost youth, of boundless sexuality, they repay greater scrutiny. If these works are obsessed with sex, the reason is that throughout his career, all Picasso's art was implicitly sexual. The tension that makes his art so believable results in part from a desperate exercise in self-restraint. For six decades he had maintained a balancing act between the requirements of pictorial propriety and a savage, often pornographic eroticism to which he was drawn instinctively and with an increasing lack of control. Now, allowing himself full rein, wearing the period costume of a Velasquez musketeer, he becomes Picasso the anti-hero, the dueller with shadows and the carrier-off of women. Subtly transmuting into the painters Rembrandt and Raphael, he is pictured with his mistress / model - violating her first with his eyes, and subsequently, as the artist with the priapic paintbrush, more literally.
Using a combination of etching, aquatint and drypoint, Picasso creates disturbing contrasts of shadow, form and texture to reinforce the emotional content of his image. His theme, apparently the corruptibility of love, is in reality a personal commentary upon the way in which an artist uses his model and, by extension, the world and all it contains, for his own self-gratification.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of these works is neither their sexual frankness nor technical drama, but their importance as a vehicle of catharsis. Here is Picasso, expressing a debt in form, content and even in direct portraiture, to a line of influence stretching from Raphael and El Greco through Rembrandt and Velasquez to Goya and Degas. At the end of his life, the painter of the Demoiselles d'Avignon, the notorious deconstructer of the image, is defining himself as a narrative artist.
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